MARIUPOL, Ukraine – Pro-Russian insurgents have retreated from government buildings in a major eastern Ukrainian city as steelworkers began citizen patrols, giving residents hope that a wave of anarchy had come to an end.
Mariupol, second-largest city in the Donetsk region, was one of the cities in the east overrun by pro-Russian protesters who have been in control of government buildings there for weeks.
Citizen patrols began earlier this week as Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest man who is believed to wield great influence in the area, urged the steelworkers at his factories to help the police restore order in the city.
Akhmetov's Metinvest initiated Thursday's agreement with steel plant directors, local police and community leaders on improving security in the city and vacating separatist-occupied buildings. A representative of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, which declared independence on Monday, was also party to the deal.
An Associated Press crew did not see any insurgent presence in Mariupol Friday morning.
German Mandrakov, who was once the commander of Mariupol's occupied governmental building, told The Associated Press on Friday that his associates fled while he was "forced" to leave the government building they have been controlling for weeks.
"Everyone ran away," he said, using a vulgar Russian word to refer to them as cowards. "Someone is trying to sow discord among us, someone has signed something, but we will continue our fight."
Mariupol, a city of half a million people on the Sea of Azov, is home to Metinvest's two steel plants and is on the main road between Russia and Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Moscow annexed following a hastily called referendum last month.
The city saw heavy fighting in the past weeks including a shoot-out outside a police station that left one policeman and several insurgents dead.
On Friday morning, everal dozen Metinvest workers, in their overalls and helmets, were clearing out the barricades outside the government building on Friday.
Viktor Gusak, a Metinvst employee, who was cleaning the street, said locals are "tired of war and chaos. Burglaries and marauding have to stop."
Trucks were carrying away the rubbish and tires that formed the barricades. By noon local time, the Mariupol government building was nearly free of barricades.
Several hundred meters away three men were sitting in the park, cooking soup. One of them, unemployed Serhiy Atroshchenko, told The Associated Press this was all that was left of Mariupol's separatist force.
"We were duped," Atroshchenko said. "Akhmetov used to keep his eyes close (to what was happening), but now he decided to make a deal with Kiev authorites."
Atroshchenko said his associates have fled and only they, the "men of ideas," are left "to fight till the end." Atroshchenko and his other two associates were not carrying arms.
The first major citizen patrol was held in Mariupol on Thursday, local police spokeswoman Yulia Lafazan told The Associated Press. There are currently about 100 groups of men consisting of two policemen and six to eight steelworkers patrolling Mariupol streets, she said.
Lafazan credited the patrols for a "drastic improvement" in the crime situation in the city.
Burglaries and car-jackings became a norm after the pro-Russian insurgents asserted themselves in the city earlier this month, bringing in a wave of marauding. Car-jackings have ceased since the patrols began, Lafazan said.
"For the first time (in weeks), I can go out shopping without fear," says local resident 47-year-old Valentyna Tochilina.
In a report published on Friday the United Nations raised concern about human rights abuses increasing in eastern Ukraine as leaders and members of armed groups took advantage of the breakdown in law and order.