Shakhtarsk (Ukraine) (AFP) - Pro-Russian insurgents in war-torn eastern Ukraine have staged sabre-rattling training exercises in preparation for the possible deployment of an armed international police force in rebel-held areas.
The simulated street fighting Wednesday in the rebel-controlled town of Shakhtarsk saw around 100 camouflaged fighters armed with thick metal shields training cheering crowds how to form lines to push back against advancing troops.
One rebel held up a banner reading "No to a foreign armed mission" while several others tried to overturn a car.
Kiev is pressing for an international armed police presence in the region so that it can be brought under control and seal Ukraine's porous eastern border with Russia ? allegedly used by rebels to smuggle in weapons and supplies.
The Organization of Security of Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) ? the group that would be responsible for policing the conflict zone ? has 580 unarmed staff based in the region and recently had its mandate to monitor the shaky truce extended to the end of March 2017.
The idea of arming that mission does not sit well with the self-proclaimed "people's republics" in the industrial regions of of most Russian-speaking Lugansk and Donetsk.
- 'Repel Ukrainian junta' -
"We will repel the Ukrainian junta and the armed mission at the very border of the People's Republic of Donetsk," one camouflaged fighter who refused to give his name shouted out while a mock street revolt unfurled behind him.
A separate exercise saw about 1,000 civilians get into a fight with the imitation OSCE force in order to disarm them.
They pelted them with bottles of water and rocks and eventually succeeded in taking control of an insurgent tank that was playing the role of an OSCE tank vehicle.
The OSCE press office tried to calm the waters by noting that no decision on arming their monitors was imminent and would need prior approval from the European security body's 57 members.
One of those is Russia ? a former superpower that views Ukraine's aspiration to one day join the European Union with a great degree of rancour.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said it would be possible for OSCE members to carry pistols for self-defence in some cases, but has never endorsed fully arming the mission.
The pro-EU government in Kiev accuses Russia of backing the militias in a conflict that has plunged Moscow's relations with the West to a post-Cold War low and complicated the resolution of other urgent matters such as the Syrian war.
Russia denies any direct involvement in a 27-month war that has claimed nearly 9,500 lives.
But it admits that volunteer and off-duty soldiers have fought alongside the rebels and defends the separatists' position at global venues such as the United Nations.
Ukraine's call for an armed mission has found little support among its Western allies or the OSCE itself ? a monitoring body that has no experience in performing police missions.
"People have the right to express their position," the OSCE press office told AFP in a comment on the demonstration by rebel forces.
"And we are always ready to discuss their problems," the OSCE office added.