Gunmen’s seizure of parliament building stokes tensions in Ukraine’s Crimea

With unrest growing in the Crimea over Ukraine’s political transformation, a group of armed men seized the local parliament and the regional government headquarters in Simferopol early Thursday morning, barricaded themselves inside both buildings and raised Russian flags, news services reported.

They were reported to be wearing plain uniforms without designating marks. The Interfax news agency quoted a local authority as saying the men were from a Crimean self-defense group.

The takeover, in the regional capital of Simferopol, brings tensions in the Crimea to a new high, just hours after thousands of ethnic Russians there had protested against the new government in Kiev, while Crimean Tatars rallied in its support. It also came after Moscow ordered surprise military exercises in a district bordering Ukraine and put troops in the region on high alert.

The developments stoked concerns about divided loyalties in Ukraine and raised the question of Russian military intervention, which Secretary of State John F. Kerry said would be a “grave mistake.” Russia insisted that the exercises were routine.

In the aftermath of Ukraine’s toppling of its Kremlin-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych, eyes turned toward the Crimean Peninsula, where ties to Russia are especially strong and where the fallen protesters in Kiev are viewed not as heroes but as hooligans.


The country’s interim authorities presented their list of nominees for a new cabinet, to be headed by Arseniy Yatsenyuk, one of the three political leaders who helped maintain the protest movement over the course of the past three months. Neither of the other two — Vitali Klitschko, a former boxing champion who is running for president in a May election, or Oleh Tiahnybok, a member of the nationalist All-Ukrainian Union “Svoboda” party — was on the list.

The roster was approved in consultations with a self-organized council of protesters from the Maidan, or Kiev’s Independence Square, but was greeted with little enthusiasm by the thousands gathered there.

“Too many politicians. We don’t trust anyone,” said Svetlana Kravtsova, 50. “We need to see real people.”

Parliament plans to confirm the list Thursday. The move comes amid concerted efforts to secure foreign aid, with the Ukrainian currency dipping to a new low.

While the demonstrations have quieted in Kiev — the protest council called on members of “self-defense” groups to remove their ski masks and put down their weapons — they are just beginning here in the Crimea. In the regional capital, Simferopol, pro-Russia demonstrators clashed with thousands of Muslim Tatars who were rallying in support of the interim pro-Europe government in Kiev.

Police mostly succeeded in keeping the two sides apart, though fists were thrown as the two groups staged dueling rallies outside the regional parliament. A dozen people were injured, and one elderly man died of a heart attack at the demonstration.

The Tatars, who as a people were deported to Asia by Joseph Stalin after World War II and who returned to their ancestral homeland only in the 1980s, are Russian speakers who strongly oppose the idea of joining Russia.

The parliament building in Ukraine's Crimea was seized by armed men, described by witnesses as ethnic Russian separatists, in a direct challenge to Ukraine's new leaders. (Reuters)

Elsewhere in Ukraine, there were some signs of reconciliation. In the fervently anti-
Yanukovych city of Lviv, in the Ukrainian-speaking west, activists organized a campaign to have everyone there speak Russian for the day. In Odessa and in Donetsk, Yanukovych’s home town, there was a move to have residents and businesses use only Ukrainian for a day.

The most independent television company in the country, Channel 5, which came to be identified with the protests, announced that it will now present the evening news in Russian.

Military drills at issue

Moscow’s military exercises — which, intentionally or not, are a stark reminder of Russia’s armed power — were announced by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. He said the maneuvers were not related to Ukraine’s turmoil but were ordered by President Vladimir Putin to check preparedness “for action in crisis situations that threaten the nation’s military security.”

The exercises, due to start Friday and last four days, will also involve elements of the Russian navy and air force, Shoigu said. Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet is at a leased base here in Sevastopol’s deep-water harbor.

In Brussels, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that the alliance had been informed of the exercises and that the Russians had “lived up to all their obligations as regards transparency.”

Russia has held at least six such snap exercises in the past year to test readiness, the RIA Novosti news agency said.

The exercises, Shoigu said, involve the western military district, which abuts Ukraine’s northeastern border, and units of the central district, which covers a vast swath across the middle of Russia. The district closest to the Crimea is not involved.

Russian officials have said their country has no intention of intervening militarily in Ukraine. Valentina Matvienko, speaker of the upper house of the Russian parliament, said Wednesday that intervention was out of the question.

In a brief news conference in Brussels on Wednesday, Rasmussen made no direct mention of the Russian exercises but said, “We take it for granted that all nations respect the sovereignty and independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and this is a message that we have also conveyed to whom it may concern.” He made the remarks as NATO defense ministers assembled for a scheduled meeting.

Although Ukraine has not sought NATO membership, it has long cooperated with the alliance’s operations, sending troops to Bosnia and Afghanistan and participating in NATO anti-
piracy operations off the coast of Somalia.

Ukraine’s acting defense minister is expected to attend a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission on Thursday.

Yanukovych hasn’t been definitively spotted in public since Friday. But a Russian newspaper, RBK, reported that he had been seen in Moscow on Tuesday night and that he moved Wednesday to a villa in the city’s most exclusive suburb, Barvikha.

Various Russian officials denied the report or refused to comment on it.

Before that, Yanukovych is thought to have last been seen
in the Crimean Peninsula, in
the seaside resort town of
Balaklava, just down the coast from Sevastopol.

A city loyal to Russia

Sevastopol embraced news of the Russian military exercises and took them as a sign of saber rattling and support.

Sevastopol looks, sounds and feels like a little corner of Russia, and activists here have declared that it will remain that way, no matter what happens in the rest of Ukraine.

“We have our Russian language, Russian heroes and Russian culture,” said Valeriy Bespalko, who stood in the drizzling rain earlier in the day to support the city’s new de facto mayor, who is a Russian, not Ukrainian, citizen and who took over City Hall two days ago.

Hours after the new Ukrainian interior minister announced Wednesday that he would disband the elite police force that spearheaded most of the attacks on protesters in Kiev last week, its members were offered sanctuary here in the Crimea, further stoking concerns about divided loyalties and old schisms in turbulent Ukraine.

“These people adequately fulfilled their duty to the country and have shown themselves to be real men,” said Alexey Chaly, the new head of the Coordinating Council of Sevastopol.

Chaly said the police unit had been “abandoned to the mercy of this rabid pack of Nazis,” a reference to the protesters in Kiev.

“At this difficult time, our city needs decent men who could form the basis of self-defense groups and, in the future, the municipal police. We are ready to provide for them if they join us in our struggle, and to offer safety to their families,” he said in a post on his Facebook page.

The special police unit, known as the “Berkut,” was reviled by the protesters in Kiev after attacks that included the use of live ammunition. Dismantling such units can be difficult business. A similar outfit, the Latvia OMON, was disbanded in 1991, and its members became the backbone of organized crime in St. Petersburg.

Englund reported from Kiev. Karen DeYoung in Brussels contributed to this report.

William Booth is The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles and Miami.
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