Fistfights broke out between pro- and anti-Russian demonstrators in Ukraine’s strategic Crimea region on Wednesday as Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly ordered tests of the combat readiness of troops just across the border.
In Crimea’s regional capital of Simferopol, more than 10,000 Muslim Tatars rallied in support of the three-month protest movement that sent President Viktor Yanukovytch into hiding last week and the interim government it has spawned. Waving Ukrainian flags, they chanted “Ukraine is not Russia!”
That group clashed with a smaller pro-Russian rally nearby in which participants waved Russian flags. Protesters shouted and punched one another, as police and leaders of both rallies struggled to keep the two groups apart.
The tensions in Crimea a peninsula in southern Ukraine that is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet highlight the divisions that run through this country of 46 million, and underscore fears that the country’s mainly Russian-speaking east and south will not recognise the interim authorities’ legitimacy.
Crimean Tatars took an active part in the protest movement against Yanukovych and harboured deep resentment towards the Kremlin, having been deported en masse on the orders of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin during World War II.
“We will not let the fate of our land be decided without us,” said Nuridin Seytablaev, a 54-year-old engineer. “We are ready to fight for Ukraine and our European future.”
Nearby, separated by police lines, Anton Lyakhov, 52, waved a Russian flag. “Only Russia can defend us from fascists in Kiev and from Islamic radicals in Crimea,” he said.
Ukraine disbands riot police
The feared riot police force blamed for the deaths of Ukrainian protesters in Kiev has been disbanded, newly installed Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said.
“Berkut no longer exists,” Mr. Avakov wrote on Facebook late Tuesday, using the two-decade-old unit’s Ukrainian name, which means eagle.
The Ukrainian Parliament has been moving swiftly to remove or reform institutions linked to deposed President Viktor Yanukovych, whose whereabouts are still unknown.
In a sign of divisions within the former opposition, lawmakers on Tuesday postponed the formation of an interim government to Thursday.
However, the new cabinet members will be presented on Kiev’s Independence Square at 7 pm (1700 GMT) on Wednesday, according to Valeriy Patskan, a lawmaker for opposition leader Vitali Klitschko’s Udar party.
Activists have demanded that leaders of the three-month protest on Kiev’s Independence Square, or Maidan, be given cabinet posts.
There were growing fears Ukraine could be torn apart by separatist movements, with concern about a possible breakaway of Crimea, where ethnic Russians have demanded secession after the power change in Kiev.
A delegation of Russia’s upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, was expected fly to the Black Sea peninsula on Wednesday.
Mikhail Margelov, the head of the Federation Council’s Foreign Relations Committee, said that the delegation would meet with representatives of both the old and new authorities, the Interfax news agency reported.