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Tensions high in Ukraine's Crimea as rival crowds gather

Source: Reuters - Wed, 26 Feb 2014 11:30 GMT
Author: Reuters
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By Alessandra Prentice

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine, Feb 26 (Reuters) - Pro-Russia separatists and supporters of Ukraine's new leaders confronted each other on Wednesday outside Crimea's regional parliament before a debate on the political upheaval that swept away President Viktor Yanukovich.

About 2,000 people, many of them ethnic Tatars who are the indigenous group on the Black Sea peninsula, converged on the parliament building to support the 'Euro-Maidan' movement which overturned Yanukovich in Kiev after three months of protests.

They were met by several hundred pro-Russia demonstrators who bellowed loyalty to Moscow and denounced the "bandits" who had seized power in the Ukrainian capital.

The two sides, who were held apart by police lines, rallied at the parliament which, under pressure from pro-Russia forces, had called an emergency session for later on Wednesday to discuss the crisis.

Crimea was gifted to Ukraine in 1954 in the Soviet-era by then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. With a part of Russia's Black Sea fleet based in the port of Sevastopol, it remains the only region of Ukraine where ethnic Russians dominate in numbers.

With Crimea now the last big bastion of opposition to the new post-Yanukovich political order in Kiev, Ukraine's new leaders are voicing concern over signs of separatism there.

Ethnic Tatars, who accounted for most of the pro-Maidan demonstrators, rallied under a pale-blue flag, shouting: "Ukraine! Ukraine!" and the Maidan's refrain of "down with the gang!"

The pro-Russian crowds, some of them cossacks in silk and lambswool hats, shouted back "Crimea is Russian!".

Rudik Asmanov, a 42-year-old Tatar businessman, said: "We need to show our support for Kiev, to honour 'Heaven's Hundred'," he said, referring to casualties on the protesters' side in Kiev.

Alexei, 17, part of the pro-Russia crowd, who was wearing a bandana over his face and carrying a baseball bat in a backpack, said: "The Tatars are our enemy now. They're siding with the bandits in Kiev. We need to defend ourselves or it will be chaos."

(Writing by Richard Balmforth, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

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