When the men in black uniforms cocked their guns and pointed them at us, I realised that it was a bad idea to make a cold call on Ukrainian paramilitary forces at their secret hideout in the woods.

"How did you find us? Are you Russian spies?" yelled one, his face twisted with tension as he waved his 9mm-calibre pistol at my stomach.


A least 21 people died in Mariupol, eastern Ukraine when Kiev's death squads were unleashed on civilians
Our terrifying encounter came after a drive down a meandering dirt road deep into a forest near the port city of Mariupol, on the Azov Sea. The men's improvised headquarters lies on a small island surrounded by a pond. It is a hunting lodge that belongs to a local oligarch sympathetic to their cause.

This is the Azov battalion - known as the "Men in Black" - a secretive special unit of 70 volunteers, one of a number of paramilitary groups set up by the Ukrainian interior ministry as part of increasingly desperate attempts by the government in Kiev to fight the Russian-backed armed rebellion in the east of the country.

The paramilitaries' activities risk fuelling an escalation in tit-for-tat violence that has claimed nearly 100 lives in just under a month, propelling Ukraine towards civil war ahead of two crucial votes that could determine its fate.

Today separatists in Donetsk and Lugansk are holding a contested referendum on leaving Ukraine; on May 25 the country is to choose a new president.

The Sunday Times has identified a number of such groups, trained and armed by the government, partly with financial backing from oligarchs loyal to Kiev. They include the Donbas and the Dniepr battalions, active in the Donetsk area, and the Kiev 1 and Sturm units, which have been deployed in and around the Odessa region.

The men who surrounded us were armed with automatic weapons and pistols. A motley crew of volunteers mainly from west and central Ukraine, the majority were former soldiers, policemen and veterans of the Maidan uprising that brought down the pro-Russian government of President Viktor Yanukovych in February.

One of them, a sturdy but softly spoken fighter with a shaved head, had a tattoo on his hand of the Nazi wolf-hook symbol. "We are behind enemy lines here; everyone is against us: the police, the army, the people," he said, explaining their jumpiness. "We trust no one."

His group is part of a force referred to as the "internal troops"; many of its fighters have a military or police background, but others are being deployed after only two weeks of training. One fighter addressed us in German,which he acquired while he studied there.

They are being deployed by Kiev because of its fears that its regular forces, heavily infiltrated by Russian sympathisers, are losing the battle with the separatists.

It did not take long to see what the Azov battalion were capable of. On Friday they were deployed to help defend a police station in Mariupol that had come under attack from armed separatist militia. It ended in a bloodbath said to have claimed at least 21 lives.

I arrived in the centre of Mariupol hours after the clashes. The city, which had been contested between the government and the separatists, now appeared to be in control of an angry pro-Russia mob that built barricades around the centre.

Comment: Note the propaganda here. The Times journalist calls the civilians of Mariupol a "pro-Russia mob". First, these people are primarily anti-Kiev, which is to say, they are against the illegal coup-installed 'government in Kiev' which is using neo-Nazi death squads to prevent the people of Eastern Ukraine from asserting their democratic rights". Secondly, he slanders the civilians of Mariupol by calling them a "mob".

Buildings set alight by rocket-propelled grenades fired by the government forces and Molotov cocktails by the rioters were still burning into the night. A group of drunken men were trying to start an armed vehicle captured from the retreating Ukrainian troops.

Witnesses described to me how the men in black opened fire on civilian rioters, initially aiming at their legs to incapacitate them.

Footage from the fighting, which resembled urban warfare, showed terrified members of the paramilitary unit first firing into the air and then at the rioters, some of whom were seen firing handguns and automatic weapons.

"It was chaos," one of the members of the Azov battalion admitted afterwards. The various paramilitary groups failed to co-ordinate with one another, leading to disaster. Revulsion among locals at the bloodshed was such that Mariupol was now "lost" to the separatists, he said.

Comment: Again we see the ineptitude and desperation of the puppet idiots in Kiev. They are so blinded by their hatred of Russia that they take actions that amount to shooting themselves in the foot (even if it involves shooting civilians dead).

One of his commanders was captured by the separatists. The Azov fighter, as well as other sources, claimed that the bodies of police officers were mutilated with knives by the rioters as they lay on the ground.

The mayhem was unleashed on Friday, the anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany, as Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, triumphantly addressed an army parade in Crimea - his first visit to the Ukrainian peninsula since he annexed it in March.

The images of death and destruction from Mariupol played into the hands of pro-Russian propaganda. The Kremlin claims the "Men in Black" are infiltrated by far-right extremists from groups such as the Right Sector.

Comment: More lies from the Times journalist. When Kiev sends death squads to murder civilians in Mariupol, and when the Russians point out that these are neo-Nazi murderers, this is not "pro-Russian propaganda" it is simply the truth.

More violence is expected during today's referendums on secession; staged without proper electoral rolls or independent observers, the polls have been condemned as illegal by Kiev and the international community.

The voting will take place in the presence of heavily armed pro-Russian paramilitaries, some of whom are commanded by Russian officers.

Comment: Wow, this Times journalist just doesn't know when to quit! Again he slanders the people of East Ukraine by claiming that "the voting will take place in the presence of heavily armed pro-Russian paramilitaries, and yet provides NO evidence that this is the case. In fact, all the evidence so far suggests that the voting is taking place mainly peacefully with no armed groups involved. The Times journalist them makes the spurious assertion that these non-existent "heavily armed pro-Russian paramilitaries" are "commanded by Russian officers"! And yet again, he provides NO EVIDENCE for his claim. This guy is clearly a shill for NATO.

I spoke to one, a member of the so-called East battalion, armed with an old Kalashnikov rifle, who would identify himself only as Yuri. The group held a parade on Friday in Donetsk and was then seen heading to Mariupol. "We have Ukrainian military veterans as well as patriotic volunteers among us," he said. "Our goal is to protect the people from the fascist junta in Kiev."

The separatists are also expected to try to derail the presidential elections. In an effort to appease them, the government announced that it would hold a national referendum the same day on giving the regions more autonomy.

But the parliament scrapped the initiative last Tuesday in an about-turn condemned as a "betrayal" by Serhiy Taruta, the billionaire steel magnate parachuted in by Kiev to run the Donetsk region.

Holding the vote, he said, "would relieve the tension in the society and send a signal for a constructive dialogue about the future of the whole of Ukraine".

But dialogue seems to be the last thing on the mind of the rival pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian militia that roam the streets of Donetsk and other eastern cities.

"We are Russians, and Russia is our homeland," said Denis Pushilin, a leader of the Donetsk separatists, during the Victory Day parade.

A few yards away in a luxury hotel, a former senior air force officer, by day a security adviser to the local government, revealed how he donned a black uniform to become one of the leaders of a government-sponsored paramilitary group.

"The separatists see Russia as their homeland," he said. "They have now shown their true face, and for us Ukrainians the only question is how to remove them from our territory without allowing them to take chunks of it with them.

"We cannot live together with them after this war; they will either be killed or pushed out."