ANDRIYIVKA, Ukraine (Reuters) - Armed men took over a television tower in eastern Ukraine on Thursday and switched it to Russian channels playing an almost non-stop stream of sound-bites from a marathon TV phone-in by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Employees at the tower said the men, who were armed with Kalashnikov rifles, barged in after arriving in cars and frightening off guards by firing a shot.
TV engineers accompanying the men then took Ukrainian channels off the air and replaced them with five Russian channels.
The channels included Russia 1, Russia 24 and ORT - some of the most popular state-controlled channels - which were broadcasting clips of Putin’s TV phone-in.
“I was at my desk and heard a shot fired outside. Then men, armed and wearing masks, came in. They had technicians with them and switched channels,” said Tetyana Chernogod, an electrical mechanic who works at the station.
“We pressed alarm buttons when they came in, but nobody responded. I have been seeing Putin all day since,” she said.
Three TV screens were broadcasting clips from Putin’s phone-in when this correspondent went to the tower’s master control room. Two armed men guarded the entrance.
The Kremlin leader used a good part of his marathon TV appearance to attack the policies of Kiev’s pro-Western leaders and to encourage Russian speakers to fight for their rights.
The TV tower broadcasts over a 70 km (45 mile)radius serving about 2 million people living in well-populated areas just to the north of the main industrial hub, Donetsk.
Ukrainian central broadcasting officials confirmed that the group, who were assumed to be pro-Russia separatists, had managed to twice unplug two Ukrainian news channels that were particularly favorable to Kiev and the pro-Europe “EuroMaidan” movement.
They said that broadcasting authorities in Kiev were trying to block the Russian transmissions from the Andriyivka tower. “We are trying to restore things but we haven’t managed yet,” said one official who did not wish to be named.
The raid came after a decision by a Kiev court in late March to have providers temporarily remove broadcasts of some Russian news channels which can be accessed in TV packages. Supporters of the move argued that Russian state media was broadcasting potentially harmful anti-state propaganda.
About 10 localities in the mainly Russian-speaking east of Ukraine have been hit by a rash of rebellions by separatists who have occupied state buildings, including police headquarters, in a bid to further demands for a referendum to be held on the status of the region.
Kiev’s leaders, who came to power in February after the Moscow-backed president, Viktor Yanukovich, was ousted following three months of protests, say the rebels’ demands have been organized by Russia and are aimed at bringing about the break-up of the country.
Writing By Richard Balmforth; Editing by Hugh Lawson