Dozens of pro-Russian protesters rallied in Crimean Peninsula city on Tuesday, bitterly denouncing politicians in Kiev trying to form a new government, with some even calling for secession from Ukraine. A Russian lawmaker stoked their passions by promising that Moscow will protect them.
"Russia, save us!" they chanted.
The outburst of pro-Russian sentiment in the strategic peninsula on the Black Sea, home to a Russian naval base, came amid fears of economic collapse for Ukraine as the fractious foes of President Viktor Yanukovych failed to reach agreement on forming a new national government and said the task of assigning posts could not be completed before Thursday.
While Ukraine's politicians struggled to reorganize themselves in Kiev, a Russian flag had replaced the Ukrainian flag in front of the city council building in Sevastopol, 800 kilometers south of the capital. An armored personnel carrier and two trucks full of Russian troops made a rare appearance on the streets, vividly demonstrating Russian power in this port city where the Kremlin's Black Sea Fleet is based.
Some called on Moscow to protect them from the movement that drove Yanukovych from the capital three days ago.
"Bandits have come to power," complained Vyacheslav Tokarev, a 39-year-old construction worker. "I'm ready to take arms to fight the fascists who have seized power in Kiev."
Yanukovych's whereabouts are unknown but he was reportedly last seen in the Crimea, the staunchly pro-Russian region. Law enforcement agencies have issued an arrest warrant for him over the killing of 82 people, mainly protesters, last week in the bloodiest violence in Ukraine's post-Soviet history.
His former chief of staff, Andriy Klyuyev, was wounded by gunfire on Monday and hospitalized, said spokesman Artem Petrenko. The place and circumstances of the shooting remain unclear.
The pro-Moscow protesters gathered for a third day in front of administrative buildings in Sevastopol and in other Crimean cities. Protests on Sunday numbered in the thousands.
"Only Russia will be able to protect the Crimea," said Anatoly Mareta, wearing the colors of the Russian flag on his arm.
Russia, which has thousands of Black Sea Fleet seamen at its base, so far has refrained from any sharp moves in Ukraine's political turmoil, but could be drawn into the fray if there are confrontations between the population in Crimea and the supporters of the new authorities. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in Washington that their countries oppose any attempt to partition or divide the former Soviet republic into pro-Western and pro-Russian territories.
A senior Russian lawmaker promised protesters that his government will protect its Russian-speaking compatriots in the southern and eastern parts of Ukraine that tilt heavily toward Moscow. "If lives and health of our compatriots are in danger, we won't stay aside," Leonid Slutsky told activists in Simferopol, the regional capital of Crimea.
Slutsky's statements followed more cautious remarks by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who said that Moscow has no intention of interfering in Ukraine's domestic affairs but also warned the West against trying to turn the situation there to its advantage.
Lavrov nevertheless criticized the new authorities who assumed control after Yanukovych fled, accusing them of failure to rein in radical groups. Russian President Vladimir Putin also summoned his top security officials Tuesday to discuss Ukraine, but no details were released.
Ethnic Russians make up the majority of Crimea's population, and some, including retired navy officers and their families, have Russian citizenship. The peninsula's nearly 2 million people includes 60 percent Russian speakers, as well as 12 percent who are Crimean Tatars, a minority group deported and persecuted in Soviet times, leaving them with little love for Russia. Refat Chubarov, the head of the Tatar community, says the Tatars want new elections to the regional parliament and to remove any monuments to Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin.
Protests in Ukraine erupted after Yanukovych in November abruptly reject an agreement to strengthen ties with the European Union and instead sought a bailout loan from Moscow. But they grew into a massive movement demanding an end to corruption and greater human rights.
Updated Date: Feb 26, 2014 12:19:53 IST