Bomb Attacks Increase In Ukraine's Second-Largest City, Kharkiv

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Kharkiv has largely escaped the ravages of the war until recently. It has been hit by several terrorist bombings, including a blast at a Ukrainian national unity rally last month that killed 4 people.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And let's head next to eastern Ukraine. It's been a year since separatist fighters and their Russian allies started fighting Ukrainian government troops. A tenuous cease-fire was agreed to in February. Since then, the fighting between the two sides has quieted somewhat. But there's another kind of fighting that's just beginning - anonymous attacks that seem to be part of a terrorist bombing campaign in Ukraine's second-largest city. NPR's Corey Flintoff recently made a reporting trip to that city and filed this report.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Kharkiv is a city of nearly 1-and-a-half million people, close to the Russian border. It's a university city with a lot of young people. Many of them turned out for a pro-Ukrainian rally in late February, and they were marching when an explosion tore through the crowd and the police there to protect them.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Terrible. We think it just was like a firework. But then, when the people get down, and it's many blood, we then understand that it was not a firework, and it was a bomb.

FLINTOFF: That's a young Ukrainian police officer who was among the injured. He won't give his name because he's part of a security unit, and it's against their policy. He was still in a Kharkiv hospital 10 days after the attack where he and two colleagues were waiting for another round of operations to remove shrapnel from their bodies. The blast killed four people, including a police commander and two teenaged boys. Ten others were hurt. Tania Fedorkova is a local reporter who's covered more than a dozen bombings since they began last fall.

TANIA FEDORKOVA: (Through interpreter) Local security services say the attacks are the work of one group. They call themselves the Kharkiv Partisans, and they are said to be controlled from Russia.

FLINTOFF: Kharkiv is not far from the border with Russia. Ukraine's federal security service says that's where the terrorists are getting their explosives and their instructions. The federal investigators arrested several men in connection with the bombing and posted a YouTube video in which one man, his face digitally obscured, confesses to the attack.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Russian).

FLINTOFF: He says he was acting under orders from a member of the Russian intelligence services and that he placed the bomb along the proposed march route. He detonated it with a remote control. He says he was promised 10,000 American dollars for the attack, to be collected later in Russia. Tania Fedorkova, the reporter, says she hasn't been able to confirm whether the confession is genuine, and she adds that police haven't made much of their investigation public. But Fedorkova says the attack has triggered a debate among local activists with some urging caution.

FEDORKOVA: (Through interpreter) Maybe it would be better to wait, not to gather in the streets, because everyone believes this will happen again, and more people might be killed.

FLINTOFF: But Fedorkova says other activists believe it's necessary to keep demonstrating in favor of Ukraine or else pro-Russians will take over the city.

People on the streets say they're more afraid these days. Some say they can't or won't limit their activities, but Vladimir Bondarenko, a furniture restorer, says he stays at home as much as possible.

VLADIMIR BONDARENKO: (Speaking Russian).

FLINTOFF: He says the anxiety raised by the bombings is painful, adding that he thinks that's the whole point of terrorist acts - to bring people to a pitch of fear where they can be easily broken. Kharkiv has had more bombings since the fatal attack in February. One hit a Ukrainian army fuel tank on March 30. Just a day later, another bomb went off under unoccupied passenger train. Corey Flintoff, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.