Harriet Salem in Simferopol -
Renewed civil strife, with the potential to escalate into a showdown between Ukraine's new government and Russia, continues to stalk Crimea. Reports of "Russian" troops at regional airports were accompanied by claims from the Ukrainian interior ministry of an "armed invasion".
The tension that has been rising across the Crimean peninsular all week is reaching a new peak. Pro-Russian gunmen besieged the regional parliament in Simferopol on February 27; the chamber later called for a referendum on secession. The next morning, Russian soldiers took up positions in or around the region's two airports.
Dozens of armed men, in what are reported to be Russian military uniforms minus badges, were seen in the control tower and patrolling the grounds of Simferopol Airport on the morning of February 28. Witnesses told Interfax-Ukraine that around 50 men had arrived at the airport carrying Russian navy flags.
Russia soldiers, backed by armoured vehicles, are also reported to be blockading the Belbek military airport in Sevastopol - the Crimean port that is home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet. While flagging up that there has been no armed confrontation, Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov reported that the Russian forces remain outside the facility, while Ukrainian troops control it.
"I assess what is happening as an armed invasion and occupation," Avakov said in a statement, according to Russia's Ria Novosti. "It is in violation of all international treaties and norms. This is a direct provocation to armed bloodshed on the territory of a sovereign state."
A spokesman for Russia's Black Sea Fleet told Interfax that while its forces have not been deployed at Belbek, security has been stepped up around existing bases in Crimea.
The developments follow a chaotic day in post-Yanukovych Ukraine. In his first day on the job since being appointed by the parliament in Kyiv, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, leader of Ukraine's second biggest party Fatherland, had plenty to deal with on February 27 as pro-Russian armed invaders stormed the parliament building in Simferopol, the administrative headquarters of the Crimea region in Ukraine's south.
According to eyewitnesses, the men dressed in fatigues broke into the administrative complex and hoisted a Russian flag above the parliament building. Around 120 men are reportedly holed up inside, armed with heavy weapons including rocket-propelled grenades and sniper rifles. Earlier in the morning, the whole city was on lockdown and one police officer warned passersby that the road was closed due to the presence of snipers in the area.
The extent of the group's armoury, and their professional demeanour has raised speculations that they may be trained security professionals.
In the evening of February 27, the gunman remained barricaded inside the building, but the police had retreated to allow people to move around freely outside. At around 5:00pm, some 2,000 pro-Russian supporters paraded through the city with a giant Russian flag marching to the interior ministry, then Russian embassy, finishing near the local barracks of the elite Berkut police unit. The Berkut, formally disbanded by the authorities in Kyiv, were greeted as heroes on their return to Crimea for their role in the violent crackdowns against anti-government protesters in the country's capital.
Secessionist desires have long been harboured in Crimea. Until 60 years ago the region was under Russia's rule; a time which many of the peninsula's residents, who identify as ethnic Russian, look back to fondly. "Russia is a big country, a great country. Crimea belongs to Russia," said Tatiana a 65-year-old pensioner who attended the rally outside the parliament building with her daughter. "Of course I support the action of these men," she added. "Yesterday the Russians came peacefully whilst the Tatars were armed and aggressive. We have been pushed into this action. This is our revolution."
Violent clashes outside the parliament building between pro-Kyiv ethnic Tatar from the region and Russian nationalists the day before left two Russian supporters dead and several injured.
Many in the crowd, although not all, still recognise Viktor Yanukovych as president. Just hours after the siege began, news came through that the ousted Ukrainian president had surfaced in Moscow and had "sought protection" from Russian President Vladimir Putin. RIA Novosti has reported that the exiled Yanukovuch will hold a press conference February 28 in Rostov-on-Don, just over Ukraine's eastern border and not far from Yanukovych's hometown of Donetsk.
In his absence, Yanukovych has been charged with the "aggravated mass murder" by authorities in Kyiv for his role in the crackdown on anti-government protests that left more than 80 dead in the capital on February 18-20. The new prime minister, Yatsenyuk, accused the ousted president of massive corruption during his time in power.
Local Crimean pro-Russian groups, including Russian Bloc, the Russian Cossacks and Russian Movement of Crimea, who view the power-grab in Kyiv by the pro-EU protestors as the work of criminals and bandits, are demanding a referendum on the region's secession. "We should have someone with experience, in charge of our government, someone who knows what they are doing, the military or Berkut," one local activist announced over a loudspeaker outside the local government administrative building.
Following a parliamentary session held in the still besieged Crimean parliament, reports in the Russian media said that a public vote on the separatist issue as well as controversial language laws would take place on May 25, the same day as presidential elections are scheduled to be held across the country.
However, there are concerns that local deputies made the decisions under duress. Press were not allowed inside the building for the session, as it was reportedly still under the control of the armed gunmen, who confiscated the deputies' phones as they entered the Rada. Riot police stood in front of the building, which was also blocked by wooden barricades. Outside, pro-Russian supporters rallied. "I hope that [Volodymyr] Kostantinov [the head of the regional parliament] will publish a list of who voted and how in the local newspaper," said Oleg Sluzarenko, an activist for a Russian movement of Crimea outside the parliament building, through a megaphone. "Ukraine to Russia" chanted the crowd in response. It is also unclear whether enough deputies attended the building for the vote to be legitimate.
Calls to the Crimean legislature have gone unanswered and its website is down.
The region's local ethnic Tatar, who are aligned with Kyiv, also held a meeting today in their Simferopol HQ. Their leader, Refat Chubarov, called on people to remain peaceful, but also warned pro-Russia supporters to "stop making provocations". Chubarov also announced that Tatar groups had set up civil defence units, a counter to the local Russian nationalist groups who have also formed patrol units, supposedly to support the police. "What happens next depends on the Crimean people," he added.
Chabarov, who is also a deputy in the local Rada alongside four other representatives from the Tatar community, told press that he had not been invited to today's parliamentary session. "I don't know why," he said.
Western powers are rallying around Kyiv's government, which was on February 27 formally recognised by the US. Polish Prime Minster Dinald Tusk called the seizure of government buildings in the Crimea a "very dangerous game".
Russia, however, seems unperturbed. Known for his political gamesmanship, Putin dispatched a former boxer, astronaut, and figure skate, now all pro-Kremlin politicians, to Sevastopol. Ukrainian journalist, Oleg Kryuchkov, tweeted an unconfirmed report that the Kremlin plans to give more than $5bn in financial support to Crimea over the next five months - an especially provocative act given the money had been promised to the Yanukovych government to bail out the bankrupt country, but now withdrawn after his ousting.
Rhetoric between the Russia and the West has descended into a Cold War-esque standoff, with both sides warning each other to tone down provocative actions and rhetoric. Ukraine's interim government warned Russia against interfering in the country's political crisis, after Russia conducted military drills near the border.
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