Pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine
Pro-Russian rebels in eastern UkraineReuters

Kiev claimed Ukraine is now "at war" with pro-Russian gunmen late Saturday night, just days after the Kremlin warned that it had received "thousands" of pleas for help from civilians trapped inside eastern Ukraine.

Over the weekend, fighting raged around the town of Kramatorsk in the eastern region of Donetsk, as clashes continued in Donetsk, Luhansk, Sloviansk, and other major eastern Ukrainian cities. 

But the conflict has escalated dramatically since Saturday, locals note, after Ukrainian authorities threw petrol bombs into a trade union building in Odessa - killing 42 people, mostly pro-Russian gunmen, holed up inside. Another nine people died throughout eastern Ukraine on Saturday as the result of Kiev's "anti-terrorism" operation, according to the Telegraph

“What we are facing in the Donetsk region and in the eastern regions is not just some kind of short-lived uprising – it is in fact a war,” Vasyl Krutov, the head of Ukraine's “anti-terrorist” command, stated Saturday. 

Krutov added that ”gunfire and clashes” were still raging near Kramatorsk, despite Kiev's success in recapturing local SBU intelligence headquarters in the besieged city.

Russian Invasion?

Ukrainian officials have, once again, accused Russia of facilitating the takeover, this time blaming Moscow for the coordinated takeover of major government and commercial buildings in cities across eastern Ukraine. 

Moscow continues to deny their purposeful involvement in the uprising, while admitting that an estimated 35,000 - 40,000 troops have been stationed on the border between Russia and eastern Ukraine. Military officials say the troops have enough fuel, ammunition, and medical supplies to launch an invasion within 12 hours if given the order. 

Analysts say the bombing incident in Odessa could provide a pretext for a full-scale Russian invasion of the region as "peacekeeping forces." Pro-Russian leaders of the self-proclaimed "People's Republic" in Donetsk have already called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to do just that.

Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, blamed Ukraine’s new rulers on Saturday for the crisis, saying they were “up to their elbows in blood." 

He added that Russia had been inundated with “thousands” of pleas for help from inside Ukraine.

“People are calling in despair, asking for help, the overwhelming majority demand Russian help," Peskov said. "All these calls are reported to [President] Vladimir Putin."

He added that the Odessa bombing adds a new wrinkle to the crisis. 

“This element is absolutely new to us,” Peskov stated, according to Interfax. “Kiev and its Western sponsors are practically provoking the bloodshed and bear direct responsibility for it.”

Under siege

Eastern Ukraine in particular has been the seat of pro-Russian tensions since earlier this month, when neighboring Crimea held a controversial referendum vote and was annexed by Moscow after a de facto military invasion of the region.

landmark deal reached last week between Russia, the US and the European Union (EU) called for the separatists, who have been seizing government buildings in eastern Ukraine for several days, to disarm and stand down - in exchange for amnesty. The pro-Russian protesters have largely ignored the deal, however, claiming that the agreement does not apply to them. 

Meanwhile, locals say they're living practically under siege in cities taken hostage by pro-Russian gunmen, telling the Guardian that they are unable to leave. 

A double tier of barricades now surrounds Sloviansk, a major flashpoint in the region. In some places pro-Russia militia checkpoints are separated from the Ukrainian army by only a few miles of tarmac. 

Locals told international news over the weekend that access has been restricted in or out of Sloviansk. Handfuls of people are making their way out by foot to surrounding villages.