From foes to brothers in arms: Ukraine police and protesters unite

"Run for cover, everybody; get the hell out of here, on the double!" the leader of the commando unit shouted over his shoulder to the men behind him, his voice echoing eerily in the pitch-black basement. "It is a booby-trap. Watch your step for more wires as you go!"

Panting, swearing, stumbling, falling and rattling with all kinds of firearms, the other fighters rushed to hide behind walls of adjacent rooms, the beams of their flashlights making herky-jerky patterns in the darkness.

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FOR THE RECORD:

Ukraine conflict: An article in the July 16 Section A about unlikely allies in the conflict in Ukraine said that the worst day of violence in the anti-government protests was March 20. It was Feb. 20.
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As the squad's explosives expert carefully cut the tiny strings connecting the booby trap inside a Russian army ammo box, Vadim Lisnichuk, the leader of the Ukrainian Interior Ministry unit, gently lifted the lid to find a neatly packed hand grenade.

"One more gift from our big brother up north," he joked, sweating profusely as the device planted by pro-Russia separatists was being disarmed.

Lisnichuk hasn't always been a respected combat leader. A few months ago, the 36-year-old had an advertising career in the city of Chernivtsi in western Ukraine. Then he joined the protests in Kiev's Independence Square, popularly called Maidan, that brought down the government of President Viktor Yanukovich.

"Maidan was a kind of a spiritual festival held on another planet," Lisnichuk said. "It helped us tear up our puppet strings and feel the taste of real freedom for the first time."

Armed with sticks, Molotov cocktails and homemade shields, he and thousands of other protesters fought riot police equipped with truncheons, stun grenades and high-caliber rifles in the bloody battlefield that was Maidan.

Now Lisnichuk has joined forces with the same riot police who once opposed him, becoming unlikely comrades in arms against a common enemy: the separatists who until recently made this eastern town their stronghold in their bid to break away from Ukraine and join Russia.

"Little did I know back then that it would end like this," Lisnichuk said. "But now my weapon is not a stick but a sniper's rifle and my brothers in arms are not just a motley crew of freedom lovers. We are soldiers now and we will defend our land."

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For three months, Lisnichuk and his men in the special forces unit had been trying to dislodge the separatists, who had set up positions in apartments and backyards across Slovyansk, he said. During that time, 258 Ukrainian servicemen were killed, officials said Tuesday.

Finally, more than a thousand insurgents and Russian mercenaries retreated from the city this month, leaving most of their military hardware behind as Ukrainian national guard forces closed in, Lisnichuk said, as he and his men were having a smoke outside amid piles of crushed glass and other debris left by the militants' hasty exit.

Most of the city's residents initially supported the separatists, hoping that Russia might annex eastern Ukraine as it did the Crimean peninsula in March. As Lisnichuk and his team did mopping-up operations, the Russian television First Channel news program carried a gory account by an "eyewitness" about Ukrainian troops crucifying a 3-year-old boy in front of his mother in Slovyansk's central square.

"At first we were afraid to come out and meet our army boys when they came because the Russian television and the [pro-Russia] gunmen down here had warned us that security forces from Kiev would slaughter all the civilian population in town once they came," said one middle-aged woman, who refused to give her name for fear of being targeted by the separatists.

The Ukrainian forces also had to overcome distrust from within.

As heavy fighting was rolling away from Slovyansk and a national guard battalion was preparing to move toward the separatist-held regional capital, Donetsk, one of the soldiers sat on top of a small hill overlooking a golden landscape of endless fields of sunflowers surrounding the base.