RUSSIAN FLAG OVER CRIMEA’S PARLIAMENT BUILDING IN CRIMEA, UKRAINE

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Local ethnic Russian ‘self-defense squads’ have taken control of and raised Russian flags over the buildings of the Crimean parliament and government in the region’s capital, Simferopol.

Despite the seizure, local MPs managed to hold a session, where they decided upon having a referendum on the future of Ukraine’s Autonomous Republic of Crimea, which is divided over the acceptance of new authorities in Kiev.

Thousands gathered in front of the parliament building on Wednesday with crowds split between those supporting the new government and those calling for integration with Russia. Two people died and over 30 were injured in clashes.

At around 4am local time on Thursday, an unknown group of people barricaded themselves inside the buildings. According to local officials, those people might have been armed.

The men wore black and orange ribbons, a Russian symbol of the victory in World War II, according to AP. They placed a Russian flag on top of the Council of Ministers.

Journalists who in the morning tried to approach the parliament building had a stun grenade fired at them. RT’s video agency Ruptly filmed the incident.

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“We will swiftly inform Crimeans of the current developments today. Everything is under control, the negotiating process is under way,” Prime Minister of Crimea Anatoly Mogilyov told a local TV station.

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The country’s police and Interior Ministry troops have been on alert in connection with the situation in Crimea, Arsen Avakov, Ukraine’s acting interior minister said on his Facebook page.

Avakov said the areas around the seized buildings have been cordoned off by police to prevent civilian casualties.

Law enforcement authorities are stationed next to the Council of Ministers, with officers banning people from approaching the building, Interfax-Ukraine reported, citing the press service of the Crimean parliament.

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The buildings are reportedly occupied by ‘self-defense squads’ of 50 Russian-speaking locals each. They allowed those who were inside at the moment of seizure to leave.

They later let inside the seized parliament around 15 Crimean MPs, including the speaker Vladimir Konstantinov.

Around 400 protesters, demanding a referendum on the status of Crimea, have gathered near the parliament building, according to RIA Novosti.

Activists have been holding banners reading “Crimea for peace!” and “Crimea for a referendum!

Photo from facebook.com/aleksandr.jankowskiPhoto from facebook.com/aleksandr.jankowski

Earlier in the day Crimean Prime Minister Anatoly Mogilyov spoke to those who barricaded themselves inside parliament and government buildings. The squads’ members said they were not authorized to either hold talks or make demands. Mogilyov gave the men his phone number for further attempts to resolve the situation.

Ukraine’s acting President Aleksandr Turchinov has said the buildings in Crimea were seized by “criminals in military fatigues,” Reuters reports. Turchinov has called on citizens to remain calm.

The Prosecutor General’s office in Ukraine has opened criminal investigation into the incidents of separatism in Crimea.

Ukrainian flags are being abused in Crimea, Russian flags are being raised. We treat our neighbors with great respect, but Ukrainian laws apply in Ukraine and the country will not allow illegal actions,” Ukrainian Prosecutor General Oleg Makhnitsky told News of Crimea.

Local police have asked Simferopol residents not to go downtown, according to Olga Kondrashova, the head of the press service of the Crimean police.

“Police are providing security in the area. We call on the residents of Simferopol and Crimea to stay calm, not to panic and try to avoid going to the city center,” she said as cited by RIA Novosti.

Outside the sealed off center Simferopol residents are reportedly leading their normal everyday life. There are a lot of people on the streets, most of the shops and cafes are open.

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UKRAINE LEADER WARNS RUSSIA AFTER ARMED MEN SEIZE GOVERNMENT HQ IN CRIMEA

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By Alessandra Prentice

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (Reuters) – Armed men seized the regional government headquarters and parliament in Ukraine’s Crimea on Thursday and raised the Russian flag, alarming Kiev’s new rulers, who urged Moscow not to abuse its navy base rights on the peninsula by moving troops around.

“I am appealing to the military leadership of the Russian Black Sea fleet,” said Olexander Turchinov, acting president since the removal of Viktor Yanukovich last week. “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.

There were mixed signals from Moscow, which put fighter jets along its western borders on combat alert, but earlier said it would take part in discussions on an International Monetary Fund (IMF) financial package for Ukraine. Ukraine has said it needs $35 billion over the next two years to stave off bankruptcy.

The fear of military escalation prompted expressions of concern from the West, with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen urging Russia not to do anything that would “escalate tension or create misunderstanding”.

Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski called the seizure of government buildings in the Crimea a “very dangerous game”.

“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,” he told a news conference.

It was not immediately known who was occupying the buildings in the regional capital Simferopol and they issued no demands, but witnesses said they spoke Russian and appeared to be ethnic Russian separatists.

Interfax news agency quoted a witness as saying there were about 60 people inside and they had many weapons. It said no one had been hurt when the buildings were seized in the early hours by Russian speakers in uniforms that did not carry identification markings.

“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.

“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’,” said Khazanov.

About 100 police were gathered in front of the parliament building, and 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.

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.”

Crimea, the only Ukrainian region with an ethnic Russian majority, is the last big bastion of opposition to the new political leadership in Kiev following the ouster of Yanukovich on Saturday.

Part of Russia’s Black Sea fleet is based in Crimea, in the port of Sevastopol

Ukraine’s new leaders have been voicing alarm over signs of separatism there. The seizure of the building was confirmed by acting interior minister Arsen Avakov, who said the attackers had automatic weapons and machine guns.

“Provocateurs are on the march. It is the time for cool heads,” he said on Facebook.

Turchinov, speaking in Kiev to parliament, which had been called to name a new government, 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.

RUSSIAN WARNINGS

Russian President Vladimir 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.

Ethnic Tatars who support Ukraine’s new leaders and pro-Russia separatists had confronted each other outside the regional parliament on Wednesday.

Yanukovich was toppled after three months of unrest led by protesters in Kiev. He is now on the run and being sought by the new authorities for murder in connection with the deaths of around 100 people during the conflict.

Crimea is the only region of Ukraine where ethnic Russians are the majority, though many ethnic Ukrainians in other eastern areas speak Russian as their first language.

The Tatars, a Turkic ethnic group, were victimized by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in World War Two and deported en masse to Soviet Central Asia in 1944 on suspicion of collaborating with Nazi Germany.

Tens of thousands of them returned to their homeland after Ukraine gained independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991.

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