Policemen block pro-Russian protesters near the regional administrative building in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

Kharkiv, Ukraine -

Vastly outnumbered, a small group of pro-European protesters were ordered to their knees on the streets of Ukraine's eastern city of Kharkiv on Sunday for a humiliating ritual.

“Crawl to your Europe!” shouted members of a heaving pro-Russian crowd who had grabbed the group in unclear circumstances after a day of peaceful rival protests in the city which, only 40km from the Russian border, has been torn in two by an East-West tug-of-war over Ukraine's future.

The baying mob shoved and chanted “Kharkiv is a Russian city!” as they harried their terrified prey, crawling on their knees down the steep cobbled street, protected by riot police who formed a corridor around them but did little to stop the spectacle.

Spat on, kicked and abused, the men were eventually bundled into a waiting police van.

It was a rapid deterioration of what had been a largely peaceful meeting on the city's Freedom Square - one of Europe's largest - an hour or so earlier.

Pro-Russian movements horrified by events in Kiev, where a pro-Western government took power in February, demanded autonomy in the latest protest in the country's second city.

Russian speakers in the east feel greater ties to Moscow, accused of whipping up separatist sentiment in the region by urging that Ukraine become a federal state.

This demand comes after Russian troops seized the mainly Russian-speaking Crimea in response to the ousting of a Moscow-friendly regime in Kiev.

“This new government came to rule with force,” says mother of three Emily Belkina, 31, lifting her hands as if she was holding a gun and making shooting sounds.

“You understand, with guns in their hands, and we don't have our representative in the new government.

“We need federalisation, it's the only thing that can save us!”

As 2 000 people gathered under a colossal statue of Lenin, World War 2 songs and radio broadcasts spurred on toothless babushkas nostalgic for the Soviet Union and a younger generation for whom Kiev and its Western aspirations are just too far away.

“Federalisation means at least more autonomy and more power for our region, including the right to choose how to live our life,” said Alexander, 32, an employee at an avionics factory in the industrial hub which relies heavily on trade with Russia.

Only a few hundred metres away under a statue of Ukraine's national hero, the poet Taras Shevchenko, a gathering of pro-Europeans had the feel of a family picnic, a band plays and children and dogs run around nearby on a grassy park.

As tensions ran high with the capture and humiliation of the group of pro-Europeans, news quickly spread that fellow Moscow sympathisers in the city of Donetsk had seized the seat of government without opposition from police, and in Lugansk had managed to break into a local security service building.

“All to the regional council! Let us support Donetsk and Lugansk,” a speaker urged the crowd gathered at Lenin's feet.

The regional council, an imposing building on the opposite end of the massive square, had for hours been carefully guarded by about 500 riot police crammed into rows. Helmeted and carrying metal shields they appeared an impermeable barricade.

As the sun set behind the Lenin statue, casting an enormous shadow across the square, the crowd slowly grew. A convoy of vehicles led by a Soviet-era Lada arrived noisily in front of the regional council and more protesters carrying a variety of pro-Russian flags spilled out.

Within an hour, chanting “Russia, Russia” the protesters buoyed by the success in other cities took on the police blockade.

But the officers had been ordered not to use force and stepped aside with barely a murmur, allowing the protesters to swarm the building, remove the Ukrainian flag flying on top and plant a blue, white and red Russian flag in its place.

As the protesters celebrated and looked on, taking pictures, the police milled around laughing, leaning on their shields, chatting with people in the crowd and smoking cigarettes.

With 40 000 Russian troops stationed on the other side of Ukraine's eastern border, and two key city councils under control of pro-Moscow protesters, Kiev's new government will wake up to a stiff new challenge. - Sapa-AFP