Ukraine: violent clashes as locals hurl stones at coronavirus evacuees' bus

Residents of Novi Sanzhary clash with police over nearby quarantine site, intended to host 70 people evacuated from China

Staff and agencies in Novi Sanzhary
Thu 20 Feb 2020 16.31 EST Last modified on Fri 21 Feb 2020 05.12 EST

Police in Novi Sanzhary. Demonstrators, some of whom appeared drunk, put up road blocks, burned tyres and clashed with hundreds of riot police. Photograph: Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters Ukraine’s effort to quarantine more than 70 people evacuated from China over the new virus outbreak was plunged into chaos on Thursday as local residents hurled stones at buses carrying the evacuees and engaged in violent clashes with police.

The vehicles were finally able to reach the designated place of quarantine after hours of clashes. The masked evacuees, exhausted by the long journey, peeked through shattered bus windows as they drove slowly under heavy police escort.

Since the early morning, several hundred residents of the village of Novi Sanzhary in Ukraine’s central Poltava region had barricaded the road to a sanitarium intended to host the evacuees, fearing that they could become infected.

Demonstrators, some of whom appeared drunk, put up road blocks, burned tyres and clashed with hundreds of riot police who moved to restore access. One protester tried to ram police lines with his car.

The Ukrainian authorities say all passengers on board had been screened twice for the virus before being allowed to fly, but that was not enough to pacify the protesters.

“Isn’t there any other place in Ukraine that can host 50 people, that is located in more or less remote villages or in far-off areas where there is no threat to population?” queried resident Yuriy Dzyubenko.

One protester was heard suggesting they should be kept at Chernobyl, the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986. Another suggested taking them to parliament, while another said Zelenskiy, Ukraine’s president, should house them himself if he really believed there was no danger.

“This is what I am telling him, telling the president: ‘Take 10 people, then I will take two,’” a man called Yuriy, who did not give his last name, said.

Nine police and one civilian were hospitalised, regional police said in a statement.

More than 10 protesters were detained, and Ukraine’s interior minister, Arsen Avakov, visited the site of the skirmishes to try to calm the crowd down. He urged the protesters “not to fall for provocations and be understanding of the necessity for these temporary measures”.

“The situation is rather heated,” Poltava’s regional police spokesman Yuri Sulayev said.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy also weighed in, saying the protests showed “not the best side of our character”. In a statement on his Facebook page, Zelenskiy said the authorities had done everything possible to make sure the virus would not spread to Ukraine.

“But there is another danger that I would like to mention. The danger of forgetting that we are all human and we are all Ukrainian,” he said.
Municipal legislators in the village vowed to continue opposing the evacuation, saying that the sanitarium’s sewage system was linked to the one in the village and ends up in a nearby waste facility.

“We can’t allow putting the health and life of local residents at risk, and demand that top officials take urgent moves to prevent people from China from being put here,” they said in a statement.

Amid the clashes between local residents and police, Ukraine’s prime minister, Oleksiy Honcharuk, said he would immediately fly to the site to oversee matters personally.

A plane with 45 Ukrainians and 27 foreign nationals took off from Wuhan early on Thursday, the origin of the outbreak that has infected more than 75,000 people worldwide and killed over 2,100.

Those evacuated included nationals from Belarus, Kazakhstan, Argentina, Ecuador, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and Panama.