Harriet Salem in Sevastopol -
It is becoming clear that the armed men who overnight seized the parliament in Simferopol, the capital of the Crimean region, are pro-Russian and have hoisted a Russian flag over a barricade. The move follows violent clashes on February 26 as tensions mount in the south of Ukraine over concerns the predominantly Russian population want to secede.
According to a variety of reports, the men occupying the parliament building wore black and orange ribbons, a Russian symbol of the victory in World War II. The men also put up a sign saying "Crimea is Russia," and threw a flash grenade in response to journalist's questions.
Earlier reports suggested the men were ethnic Tatars, who are pro-Ukrainian.
On February 26, blue and yellow flags swirled and a sea of bodies crashed into one another as both pro-Russia nationalists and ethnic Crimean Tartars surged through the thin blue police line that separated the two groups. A smattering of rocks flew overhead as the two sides engaged in fistfights and scuffles at the frontline. Fur hats atop their heads and handbags clasped firmly in their hands, Russian Babuskas cheered the violence from the sidelines.
Tensions reached a crashing crescendo around 3:00pm, but had been mounting since 10:00am in the morning as both sides gathered for rallies outside local authorities' headquarters.
Angered by the revolutionary events in Kyiv, the pro-Russian crowd demanded a parliamentary vote on the pre-Crimea's secession and a return to the Crimean constitution of 1992 - which afforded the region a higher degree of autonomy. "We will fight to the end to resist this facist rule from Kyiv, these bandits have thrown out a legitimate government, they are bandits and criminals, of course we are angry. Ukraine to Russia," said 42-year-old Oleh, a construction worker who had travelled from Sevastopol, the large Crimean port city.
On the other side of the melee, the pro-Kyiv Crimean Tartars demanded the resignation of the parliament's leader, Anatoly Mogilev. The former interior minister, and member of the previous ruling Party of the Regions, is a crony of the ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, whose whereabouts are still unknown. Joining the Tartars were a smattering of local locals who identify as Ukrainian. "We are live in Crimea but we are born in Ukraine, not Russia," said Elmaz Seydametova a 19-year-old cultural studies student at the local university.
The clashes resulted in around 20 injuries on the Russian side. There are also reports of at least one death, apparently from a heart attack. By a medical van to the right of the parliament building, at least two men lay unconscious on the ground, with one having CPR performed on him. Another three men had blood pouring from their face and heads.
Earlier in the day, the announcement of unscheduled military exercises in the west and centre of Russia had fuelled concerns that Russia would move to intervene in the Ukraine. Controversially, Aleksei Chaly, the newly appointed mayor of nearby Sevastopol, home to a large Russian military base, has reportedly invited the special police unit, the Berkut, to join the local law enforcement. The Berkut are responsible for much of the recent violence against anti-government protesters in Kyiv, which left 88 dead, but were greeted as heroes when they returned home to Crimea. Chaly has stated he will defend Sevastopol at all costs.
The parliamentary session was reportedly cancelled as a result of the violence outside.
The separatist threat in Crimea is not new. Pro-Russian rallies in the region are relatively frequent, but numbers are normally much smaller. "Today many people have travelled in from other towns in the region, the pro-Russia numbers are not normally so big," said a young Russian man who identified himself only as Andrei, grinning to reveal several missing teeth. Reportedly protesters were bussed in from neighbouring Sevastopol, the heartland of Crimean pro-Russia sentiment and home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet.
As the violence died down, Tartar protesters, some wrapped in the Ukrainian flag, entered the parliamentary building demanding to speak with officials. Following a heated exchange of words with deputies, which lasted around 40 minutes, the invaders left the building. Shortly after the Tartars leader announced on a megaphone that the protesters should leave the square and return peacefully home.
A handful of Russians remained in the area and began building barricades outside the parliament in the same style as in Kyiv's Independence Square, known as the Maidan.
In a reconciliatory gesture, Ukrainian-speaking city Lviv, in western Ukraine, on February 26 held a Russian language-speaking day. The recent repeal of a 2012 law giving regional rights to minority languages (including Russian) has angered those in the south and east of Ukraine.
Ukraine's newly appointed interior minister, Arsen Avakov, said that everything possible was being done to avoid further violence. "The police and all enforcement bodies in Crimea received instruction from me - at any cost do not provoke any conflict, any military confrontation with the civilians," he said. Avakov added that Ukraine's new authorities had pulled back from the search for the missing Yanukovych, suspected to have been hiding in Crimea, fearing that treading too heavily could destabilise the fragile situation there further. "We decided the fate of Crimea is more important."
But in a slightly more provocative move, the interim prosecutor general, Oleh Makhnitskyi, a member of nationalist party Svoboda, announced that there would be a criminal investigation into the separatist tendencies in Crimea.
And amid the heightened tensions between Russia and the West, Nato issued a statement February 26 saying it would continue to support Ukraine's territorial integrity. US Secretary of State John Kerry has warned Russia any military intervention in Ukraine would be a "grave mistake".
Russian- or Ukrainian-speaking, the future for the country's citizens looks bleak for the time being, said acting President Olexander Turchynov and PM-designate Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
Both warned on February 26 of the need for "unpopular" steps to help restore the country's economy and politics.
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