Crimean parliament seized by unknown pro-Russian gunmen



Gunmen storm Crimea’s regional administrative complex in Simferopol and hoist Russian flag above parliament building.
Fears of a major regional conflict in Crimea pitting Russia against the west have intensified after unknown pro-Russian gunmen seized the government and parliament building in a well co-ordinated military operation.
According to witnesses, the men dressed in fatigues stormed Crimea’s regional administrative complex in Simferopol at 5am on Thursday. They hoisted a Russian flag above the parliament building. About 120 men were holed up inside, armed with heavy weapons including rocket-propelled grenades and sniper rifles, witnesses said.
They threw a flash grenade in response to a journalist’s questions. Calls to region’s legislature rang unanswered, and its website was down.
It was unclear if the men were members of a pro-Russian self-defence militia formed in the aftermath of Ukraine‘s revolution or undercover Russian soldiers.
Speaking in Kiev, the former head of the Crimean parliament, Serhiy Kunitsyn, described the men as “professionally trained”. He said he had been on the phone to Crimea “all night”. The gunmen were heavily armed, he said, with enough weaponry to defend the complex “for a month”.
Either way, the seizure dramatically escalates tensions on the already volatile Crimean peninsula. Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, who has been in the job since the removal of Viktor Yanukovych last week, explicitly warned Russia not to intervene in the crisis by moving troops. The Kremlin’s Black Sea fleet is based near Simferopol in the port of Sevastopol.
Turchynov said: “I am appealing to the military leadership of the Russian Black Sea fleet. Any military movements, the more so if they are with weapons, beyond the boundaries of this territory [the base] will be seen by us as military aggression.” Ukraine’s foreign ministry also summoned Russia’s acting envoy in Kiev for immediate consultations.
EU leaders expressed alarm at the latest developments. Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, has ordered fighter jets to a state of high alert, as well as large-scale military exercises on Ukraine’s border. In a tweet, the Nato secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, urged Russia not to do anything that would “escalate tension or create misunderstanding”. Poland’s foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, called the seizure of government buildings in the Crimea a “very dangerous game”.
He told a news conference: “This is a drastic step, and I’m warning those who did this and those who allowed them to do this, because this is how regional conflicts begin.”
Hours after the parliament building was seized, Yanukovych revealed that he was now in Moscow and had “sought protection” from Putin. Yanukovych, who fled Kiev after government troops shot dead more than 80 people, excoriated Ukraine’s new leadership unveiled on Wednesday and said he was still the country’s legitimate president. He appeared to give approval to secessionist pro-Russian forces in Crimea who have rejected Kiev’s authority, and said an “orgy of extremism” had swept the country. “Now it is becoming clear that the people in south-eastern Ukraine and in Crimea do not accept the power vacuum and complete lawlessness in the country,” he said.
The gunmen barricaded doors into the parliament building with wooden crates. Police sealed off the area on Wednesday, as a crowd supportive of the seizure gathered outside. Two people died and 35 were injured during clashes outside the building on Wednesday between pro-Russian demonstrators and Muslim Tartars. About half of Crimea’s 2 million population are ethnic Russians. The Tartars – the peninsula’s original Turkic-speaking Muslim inhabitants – are 300,000 strong and support the authorities in Kiev.
Eyewitnesses described the moment when the armed men turned up. “We were building barricades in the night to protect parliament. Then this young Russian guy came up with a pistol … we all lay down, some more ran up, there was some shooting and around 50 went in through the window,” Leonid Khazanov, an ethnic Russian, told Reuters.
Khazanov added: “They’re still there … Then the police came, they seemed scared. I asked them [the armed men] what they wanted, and they said: ‘To make our own decisions, not to have Kiev telling us what to do’.”
The former head of the central executive body of Crimean Tatars, Mustafa Jemilev, said the situation was extremely worrying. He suggested the gunmen had arrived from Sevastopol, where the Russian fleet is based. “The people in camouflage and without any distinctive signs came by buses from the Sevastopol side. There are reports of movement of armed vehicles of the Russian fleet in different directions. We also got signs that in many hotels there are Russian soldiers wearing civilian clothes. The Russian general consul office says they have nothing to do with these events. But they would hardly tell the truth.”
Jemilev speculated that the gunmen could be Russian soldiers or members of Berkut, the now-disbanded riot police unit deployed against opposition protesters in Kiev., a pro-Kremlin Russian website with links to Russia’s spy agencies, however, said they were veterans from the army and police. According to US diplomatic cables leaked in 2010 by Wikileaks, Russia’s military intelligence wing – the GRU – is highly active in Crimea.
The secretary to the head of parliament, Oksana Korniychuk, said on Wednesday a referendum would be held on the peninsula to determine its future status. This would almost certainly fuel demands among Crimea’s ethnic Russian majority for a union with Russia.
About 100 police had gathered in front of the parliament building on Thursday. A similar number of people carrying Russian flags later marched up to the building chanting “Russia, Russia” and holding a sign calling for a Crimean referendum.
Many wore orange and black striped ribbons that symbolise support for Russia. One of them, Alexei, 30, said: “We have our own constitution, Crimea is autonomous. The government in Kiev are fascists, and what they’re doing is illegal … We need to show our support for the guys inside [parliament]. Power should be ours.”
“Yesterday Russian people were attacked and murdered by Tatar extremists. We will not allow this fascism from Kiev to happen here,” said 43 year-old construction worker, Spartak. “Crimea wants independence and we want parliament to hold a referendum on this. We have been hijacked.”
Policemen informed passersby that Karl Marx Street was closed due to the presence of snipers in the areas. Nearby shops and businesses have closed and pulled down their shutters.
“The actions in Kiev are a provocation to Crimea. People here didn’t chose this fascist government. Here we will not have not have memorials to Bandera [a western Ukrainian hero viewed as a fascist by many of those in the east and south of Ukraine],” said Valentina Fedorova, aged 60.
It is unclear how Ukraine’s new government in Kiev will respond. The acting interior minister, Arsen Avakov, who said the attackers had automatic weapons and machine guns, urged calm. He said on Facebook: “Provocateurs are on the march. It is the time for cool heads.”
Turchynov, speaking to the parliament in Kiev,, described the attackers as “criminals in military fatigues with automatic weapons”.
He also called on Moscow not to violate the terms of an agreement that gives the Russian Black Sea fleet basing rights at Sevastopol until 2042.
The regional prime minister said he had spoken to the people inside the building by telephone but they had not made any demands or said why they were inside. They had promised to call him back but had not done so, he said.
Putin has ignored calls by some ethnic Russians in Crimea to reclaim the territory handed to then Soviet Ukraine by Soviet Communist leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954.
The United States says any Russian military action would be a grave mistake. But Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement that Moscow would defend the rights of its compatriots and react without compromise to any violation of those rights. It expressed concern about “large-scale human rights violations”, attacks and vandalism in the former Soviet republic.

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