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Some Ukrainians flee Crimea after Russia's annexation

Source: Reuters - Sat, 22 Mar 2014 18:49 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Crimean Ukrainians ponder joining exodus after annexation

* Ukrainians are second biggest ethnic group after Russians

By Aleksandar Vasovic

SIMFEROPOL, UKRAINE, March 22 (Reuters) - As jubilant ethnic Russians celebrate Russia's annexation of Crimea, Ukrainian residents are mostly staying behind closed doors and some are packing their bags to leave the Black Sea peninsula.

In a small cafe in the old quarter of the regional capital Simferopol on Saturday, a group of Ukrainians gathered to watch Ukrainian news over the internet and to discuss their future.

"We are ready, packed and we can even leave tomorrow if we decide so," said Sergey, a 64-year-old Ukrainian businessman who has been selling kitchen appliances across Crimea. He refused to give his full name fearing reprisals.

A native of the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, Sergey moved to Simferopol three decades ago where he got married.

"The good days in Crimea are over," he said, sipping coffee. "I will try to sell my business in the coming days to cut my losses and leave."

Ukrainians account for some 23 percent of Crimea's 2 million population and are the second largest ethnic group after the Russians, who account for about 58 percent.

Many Ukrainians moved to the peninsula after 1954, when the Soviet Union gifted the peninsula, then Russian, to Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed laws completing the annexation of Crimea on Friday after the deployment of thousands of Russian soldiers backed by local unarmed militias.

Shrugging off condemnation from Ukraine's interim government and Western leaders, Russia says the annexation was necessary to protect Crimea's ethnic Russians against what it described as a "fascist" threat in Kiev, where Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovich was toppled after bloody popular unrest.

THREAT OF VIOLENCE

Last Sunday, Crimea's pro-Russian authorities staged a referendum on secession from Ukraine in which a landslide 97 percent of participants voted to secede.

Some Crimean Ukrainians say they feel under pressure from pro-Russian neighbours and militias loyal to the region's Moscow-backed prime minister, Sergei Aksyonov.

"It is really scary to stay here because if you support a different position to the radical pro-Russian one, you might become a victim of violence," Galina Dzhikayeva, a director of an art center in Simferopol, said in a recent interview.

By Friday, about 900 people from Crimea had crossed to the mainland, a parliamentary deputy said, and the ministry for social affairs in Kiev said it had set up a special hotline to help them claim pensions, social security and relocate their children to new schools.

"The border guards are keeping statistics of people moving ... to other Ukrainian regions ... There are families with children among them as well as individuals," Galina Lutkovska, a Ukrainian parliamentary deputy responsible for human rights, was quoted as saying by the Ukrinform news agency.

Students from mainland Ukraine studying at Crimean universities also said they may head home after the annexation.

"I don't know if I will feel bad being Ukrainian and living in Russia, but ... I do not accept this. I did not want this," said Ksenia Semenchenko, a history student.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a human rights and security body, finally agreed this week to send monitors to Ukraine after a delay Western members blamed on Russia, but Moscow said it would have no mandate in Crimea.

Many Ukrainian servicemen who served in Crimea have also been packing up after Russian troops took over their positions. Although many said they would remain in Crimea where they were born, others said they were ready to redeploy to other posts.

"I will move my family to Ukraine's mainland and continue to serve there," said Slavik, a junior officer who served at a training outpost just outside Simferopol. "We will leave as soon as I receive my orders." (Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Alessandra Prentice and Gareth Jones)

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