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East Ukraine irregulars sign up to fight rebels and Russians

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Spectacles peeping through his balaclava, an amateur gun-enthusiast shows a group of recruits dressed head-to-toe in black how to strip a Kalashnikov rifle.

Volunteers of Ukrainian battalion Past some abandoned agricultural equipment in a nearby field, five middle-aged trainees charge around a rudimentary obstacle course under the guidance of a rather portly comrade.

It may be based in a run-down farm building and claim only 100 members so far but this is the Donbass battalion, a volunteer brigade including taxi drivers, local businessmen and engineers that says it's banding together to battle separatist rebels and a possible Russian invasion in eastern Ukraine's most troubled region.

Dmitry Babkin said he did not want to leave his two teenage children, wife and Internet start-up business but the thought of tanks massing on his nation's border made him act when he found an appeal for people to join on Facebook.

"I signed up to stop outside aggression and to fight the Russians if they invade because our army isn't strong enough and we can't just rely on kids of 18," Babkin told AFP, taking off his ski-mask to reveal silver hair and a sunburned face.

"I'm ready to kill a Russian to defend our land," said Babkin, who served in the army for three years and is actually half-Russian.

Wearing a brown leather jacket and aviator sunglasses, the battalion's founder Semyon Semenchenko looks more like what he is -- a small business owner -- than an army commander despite his six years of military service.

Semenchenko, 38, says he got fed up waiting for the government to organise a promised volunteer force in the strife-torn Donetsk region so he decided to do it himself by launching an online call to arms some two weeks back that has already seen 500 people show interest.

His criteria for those wanting to join are simple -- you have to be a patriot, have a clean criminal record and no mental problems -- beyond that men of any age and experience are welcome.

- Patriots and partisans -

Despite a recent claim by Dmytro Yarosh -- the leader of the far-right Pravy Sector group and bogeyman for the Russian press -- that he was setting up the group, Semenchenko denies any connection with the extremists.

"We are just an organised group of patriots. We want to take back our towns," Semenchenko says.

As for arms, the group appeared to have only a few automatic rifles and the occasional pistol -- all legally owned they claim -- but Semenchenko said they had enough weapons stored away "to do the job".

The battalion's new uniforms, bulletproof vests and even food come from private donations, he says, and the members do not get paid.

Despite having the insignia of the Ukrainian army on their uniforms, the group says it exists in a limbo -- cooperating with the local police to man a nearby roadblock but insisting they remain outside the control of any official security organ.

"If it comes to defending our homeland then of course we'd join them but until then its better to be the leader of a partisan group so that we don't have to obey any criminal or ineffective orders," Semenchenko says.
While the brigade might not have much chance against the force of the Russian army, what they lack in terms of military might they say they make up for with their desire to protect their homes.

"My grandson said to me that we had to stop running away and go on the attack, so I realised it was time to do something," says Zakhar, a local resident who comes originally from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, through his ski-mask.

Next to him another masked volunteer, Mikhail, says that with no signs of the unrest calming down, he fears he will not be going home anytime soon.

"We've all got families and I'd like us to just be able to go back to them peacefully," says Mikhail.

"That's the wish but the expectation is that we'll have to stay and be ready for anything."



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