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26 Feb, 2014 11:12

Stones, bottles thrown as pro-, anti-Russian protesters clash in Crimea

Bottles, stones and flags flew in the air as thousands of pro- and anti-Russian demonstrators clashed in front of the parliament building in Simferopol, the capital of Ukraine's autonomous Crimea Region.

Tension between the rival groups rallying next to one another intensified after hours of demonstrating, with people wielding Russian, Ukrainian, Crimean and Crimean Tatar flags getting involved in clashes. Demonstrators slammed each other with flags and threw stones as leaders on both sides urged their followers to avoid provocations.

On Wednesday evening, local MP Mustafa Dzhemilev said that during the clashes two people died - a man of a heart attack and a woman who was trampled by the crowd.

At least 30 people have been injured in the clashes, six of whom were hospitalized, the Crimean Health Ministry reported. Three of them remain in severe state while the other three suffered moderate injuries. Most people were admitted with head and abdominal injuries.

The head of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, Refat Chubarov, eventually called for the participants of the rally to go home peacefully. Crimea shall not be divided by “provocations” and its people will decide the future of the region on their own, Chubarov said in an impassioned speech.

“We have gathered here to ensure that the Supreme Council [of Crimea] is no longer a center of destabilization. We may be different in our approach, but we are one in blood and in our love for Crimea. Our task for today is not to let any clashes happen here on this square. We are trying to find a common approach to building the future of Crimea,” Chubarov said, addressing the demonstrators.

He also blamed the Crimean authorities for what is now happening and called for a new session of the local parliament to be held.

Chubarov then handed the microphone to the leader of Russian Unity party, Sergey Aksyonov, who also urged the demonstrators to avoid clashes.

“All of us here are Crimeans. Let us remember that, above all. Crimea is our common home, and we must respect each other. We must together address the outside challenges... Do not let political provocateurs start clashes on this square,” Aksyonov said.

The rival groups are protesting for and against the new national authorities in Kiev. Part of the residents proclaimed that Crimea are not going to obey Kiev, while the local Muslim community of Crimean Tatars expressed support for the new Ukrainian authorities.

Two separate rallies, consisting of several thousands of protesters, faced each other on Wednesday. Russians shouted “Russia-Russia!” and “Berkut!”, the name of the special police task force disbanded yesterday by the new Ukrainian authorities, who blame them for heavy-handed policing of opposition activists in recent months in central Kiev. The Muslim community protesters were shouting “Ukraine-Ukraine!” and “Crimea is not Russia!” Pro-Russian demonstrators were holding Russian flags, while Tatars were holding Ukrainian flags and flags of their own nationalist organizations.

Video footage from the scene appeared to show that both sides were preparing for a clash. Police officers attempted to separate the two sides.

The police were unarmed except for rubber batons.

The parliament of the Crimea Autonomous Region was deciding when to hold a session to declare the region’s official position toward the new authorities in Kiev. The Tatar community has spoken out sharply against holding a parliamentary session on the issue.

The speaker of the Crimean parliament, Vladimir Konstantinov, dismissed reports in the region’s media that MPs would discuss the possible secession of the Crimea Autonomous Region from Ukraine.

“The Crimean parliament is not discussing the issue of secession from the state of Ukraine. This is a provocation aimed at discrediting the Autonomous Region’s Supreme Council, to deprive it of its legitimacy," he said in a statement released Wednesday.

The Russian rally is demanding that the Crimea autonomous region declare independence and ask for assistance from Russia.

Sergey Aksyonov, center, leader of the Russian Unity public organization and deputy of the Verkhovna Rada of the Crimea, during a rally in front of the Crimea's Supreme Council building in Simferopol (RIA Novosti / Taras Litvinenko)

The Tatars of the Crimea peninsula, united by their national party Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, together with local supporters of the new Ukrainian authorities, have declared that they will not allow the autonomous region to break away.

“We warned them not to arrange a [parliamentary] session. Do not explode the situation in Crimea. We know they need that session to tear Crimea away from Ukraine,” Chubarov said. “We warned that Crimea Tatars will not allow this to happen. Tatars will not allow the fate of this land to be decided without them.”

In addition, the protesters demanded a referendum be held to decide whether Crimea should retain its current status as an autonomous region in Ukraine, to become independent, or become part of Russia again (Crimea was part of Russia until 1954).

Demonstrators from Russian-dominated Sevastopol, the largest city in Crimea, are arriving at the region’s capital Simferopol, in the center of the Crimea peninsula, to support thousands of Russian nationals rallying against the new authorities in Kiev.

Right-wing leaders threatened earlier that they would send to Sevastopol the so-called “trains of friendship,” which are, in fact, groups of armed radicals, RT correspondent Egor Piskunov reported from Simferopol. Additional checkpoints have been set up on the main roads leading to the city to prevent any possible provocations, he said.

Participants in a rally in front of the Crimea's Supreme Council building in Simferopol (RIA Novosti / Taras Litvinenko)

Crimeans started protesting on Tuesday outside the regional parliament building in Simferopol, urging local MPs not to support Kiev’s new government. Demonstrators want the autonomous region to return to the constitution of 1992, under which Crimea had its own president and independent foreign policy.

In the meantime, vigilante groups are being formed in Crimea’s largest city, Sevastopol. About 3,500 people have already joined the groups, their leader Yury Pankov told ITAR-TASS.

The vigilantes plan to patrol the streets along with police to prevent violence.

“In fact, we are creating classical Voluntary People's Guards,” Pankov said.

Authorities in Sevastopol have refused to comply with an order by the new interior minister, Arsen Avakov, to disband a detachment of the Berkut special police task force. The Berkut task force, abolished nationwide this week by the new Ukrainian authorities, was formed in Ukraine 20 years ago, and consisted of around 4,000 officers throughout the country. The head of the city government, Aleksey Chaly, has called for all Berkut officers to come to live in Sevastopol with their families.

An interim government was established over the weekend in Kiev. The Ukrainian parliament elected Aleksandr Turchinov as interim president and scheduled presidential elections for May 25. Ousted President Viktor Yanukovich, whose whereabouts remain unknown, has decried the decisions of the interim government as “illegal” and said the unrest in the Ukrainian capital bears all the hallmarks of a coup d’état.

Participants in a rally in front of the Crimea's Supreme Council building in Simferopol (RIA Novosti / Taras Litvinenko)

Ukrainian men help pull one another out of a stampede during clashes at rallies held by ethnic Russians and Crimean Tatars near the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol February 26, 2014 (Reuters / Baz Ratner)