Ukraine's Roma live in fear amid wave of nationalist attacks

After attackers charged into a Roma encampment on the outskirts of Kiev, beating the residents and chasing them away, a leader of an ultranationalist group posted photos of his colleagues clearing the site and burning tents left behind.

The camp's former dwellers took off "after persuasive legal arguments," Serhiy Mazur, an activist with the C14 organization, wrote on Facebook, suggesting the actions of civic-minded volunteers rather than vigilantes. Mazur added: "Further raids are planned."

The April attack was the first of 11 forced removals that ultranationalists in Ukraine carried out at settlements of Roma — an ethnic group, also known as Gypsies, that faces discrimination and disdain in much of Europe.

"We were called garbage and dirt, kicked and driven off," Aza Rustik, who fled during the first raid. "I just managed to grab the children and a bag with documents."

During an especially vicious assault in a wooded area in western Ukraine, a gang armed with chains and pieces of metal pipe killed a 23-year-old man and injured four others outside the city of Lviv. Radical nationalist groups claimed responsibility for all 11 attacks, asserting they acted in concert with police and openly posted about their exploits on social media.

After the April camp invasion, C14's Mazur was charged with hooliganism. Two lawmakers spoke on his behalf, and he was released to await trial under house arrest.

"I would like to hear from the police and the neighborhood administrative officials, who many times asked us for help," he said when he appeared in court last month.

The attacks and the prospect of more violence are terrifying to Ukraine's estimated 100,000 Roma.

"They threw stones at us, and when we jumped out of the tent, they beat us indiscriminately," recalled Klara Gaga, a survivor of the fatal attack outside Lviv.

Four suspects have been detained in the Lviv attack; another 12 were detained as suspects in the attack in Ternopil, but subsequently were released from custody. The attackers in Ternopil fired gunshots to scare Roma.

"Not a single person has been sentenced in attacks on the Roma in Ukraine. That illustrates better than any words the attitude of the authorities," Zola Kondur, a leader of Roma organization Chiricli, said.

Representatives of extremist groups justify the actions by saying they liquidate illegal Roma settlements because authorities have not. Right-wing nationalist groups such as C14 have seen their popularity and power grow in recent years amid Ukraine's confrontations with Russia and corruption-riddled domestic politics.

"State institutions are weak, the police are ineffective and the government is forced to resort more and more to the services of right-wing groups, giving them a carte blanche in return," said Vadim Karasev, director of independent Kiev-based think tank Institute of Global Strategies.

Police reject any connection with the right-wing radicals. Arthur Sokolov, who is the lead investigator in the Mazur case, said he didn't know anything about C14 ties with local authorities and police.

"There were no preliminary agreements between the police and other formations," he said in response to a question from The Associated Press about Mazur's claim that police asked C14 for help. He rejected the claim, saying he's unaware of anything like that.

But Eugene Savvateev, who for several years was involved in the training and integration of Roma children, alleged that police and the nationalists work together.

Savvateev spoke to Roma, who said that police drove them away when they visited the camp to gather what was left after the attack, adding to their feeling that C14 and police work together. They also recalled that C14 members accompanied local officials who visited the camp in the past.

"The authorities do not want to dirty their hands, so they use C14," Savvateev said. "Police came to the settlement after the attack to drive Roma away, and after that Roma certainly don't trust police and believe they work in sync with the attackers."

Animosity toward Roma is high in Ukraine, where many residents resent their messy encampments and unsightly fixed settlements such as the Radvanka district in Uzhhorod, where houses resemble sheds made of stones, plywood and polystyrene, and children play in piles of rubbish.

"Roma remain the most impoverished and unprotected part of Ukrainian society," Roma activist Myroslav Horvat, of the World Roma Organization in Uzhhorod, said. "The state declares in words the programs of integration and training of the Roma, but there is no money for it, and everything remains only on paper."

Hunger, poverty and unemployment drive hundreds of Roma to try to earn money in the richer center of the country. During the warm months of the year, the work might consist of searching for scrap metal, trading goods and telling fortunes on the street.

"Gypsies in the cities — this is theft, robbery, drug trafficking and dirty dens," read leaflets bearing the symbols of nationalist groups Natskorpus and Natsdruzhiny that have appeared in Ukraine's major cities.

Western governments and international human rights groups have called on Ukrainian authorities to prosecute the perpetrators and stop turning a blind eye to violence against Roma.

"Most of the crimes committed by radical groups have not been properly investigated by law enforcement agencies that do not want or cannot conduct effective investigations, even if certain groups publicly take responsibility for crimes," said Mariya Guryeva, an Amnesty International spokeswoman in Ukraine.

Government officials try to shift blame to Russia, alleging that it has sought to foment violence to destabilize Ukraine amid a tug-of-war between the two ex-Soviet neighbors.

"We understand that the Russians always try to play with so-called interethnic problems," Security Service of Ukraine head Vasily Hrytsak said.

"The murders of the Roma were inspired by Russia," Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said after the fatal Lviv attack.

However, those who blame Russia have yet to present any evidence supporting their claims.

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Yuras Karmanau reported from Minsk, Belarus.