Ukrainian soldiers stand guard at a checkpoint on the road near the eastern city of Izum on May 15. / Genya Savilov, AFP/Getty Images
MARIUPOL, Ukraine â?? In this rusty steel town is a possible game changer for the conflict in Ukraine.
Workers in Mariupol, a troubled city in the country's southeast, are restoring order to their streets with peaceful patrols. Groups of unarmed volunteers, some wearing the red and gray jackets of the steelworks they are employed by, are removing roadblocks and pushing out pro-Russia separatists.
The patrols began earlier this week after Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest man and a powerful force in the area, mobilized steelworkers in his factories to join local police in restoring calm to the city's streets.
"I strongly believe that Donbass can only be happy in a united Ukraine," he said, referring to the local name for this region of eastern Ukraine.
Pro-Russian insurgents have retreated from government buildings in this major eastern Ukrainian city â?? the second largest in the region â?? as steelworkers began citizen patrols.
Mariupol, dominated by steel factories and industrial plants, was one of the cities in the east overrun by pro-Russian protesters who have been in control of government buildings there for weeks.
Last week as many as 20 pro-Russian fighters were killed in violent clashes with Ukrainian forces.
Akhmetov, a magnate who this year Forbes magazine listed as possessing $12 billion, had formerly supported ousted Ukraine president Victor Yanukovych, a pro-Moscow ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin who fled the country for Russia in February.
At the Azovstal industrial plant in Mariupol on Friday, executives from the steelworks here posed before television crews and reporters, signing a memorandum pledging order and security in the city.
The document, which calls for an end to "violence, capturing buildings and using weapons", bore the names of various local interest groups â?? including steelworks bosses, the mayor, police chief, local trade union leaders and others.
Several dozen steelworkers, in their overalls and helmets, were clearing out the barricades outside the government building on Friday. Passersby commented on how the patrols helped crack down on burglaries and carjackings that became a norm after the pro-Russian insurgents asserted themselves in the city earlier this month.
The steelworks invited journalists to follow one of the patrols, a dozen men in red and gray uniforms who processed through the square outside the city hall.
"Now there are no more looters on the street," said Alexander Levada, one of the men who worked at the Illyria steelworks and said he had joined the patrol four days ago.
"The wave of criminality is now at a low. Before it was not safe to walk the streets".
He was keen to stress that the steelworkers were not politicized and intended only to calm the situation.
"The factories are beyond politics. We just watch over so there is peace in the city."
But it was clear that there were still some deep divisions in the town.
The citizen patrol melted away as a crowd of angry pro-Russians gathered outside the city hall. The city hall, badly damaged by a fire in recent clashes, still carried the flag of the separatist Donetsk Peoples' Republic. Speakers shouted anti-Kiev slogans.
"We are here against the politics of Akhmetov. He is afraid to lose his money," said Alexander Sukhorsky, 48, an unemployed welder who had joined the protest.
German Mandrakov, who had led pro-Russian forces that took over governmental buildings here, told the Associated Press that his fellow militants 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."
Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com
Read the original story: Pro-Russian insurgents retreat in Ukraine's east