Opposing groups clash in Ukraine's Crimea region

KIEV, Ukraine --Clashes in Ukraine on Wednesday between demonstrators supporting Russian involvement in the Crimea region and those opposed left one person dead of an apparent heart attack and many others injured, officials said.

The violence in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea in southern Ukraine, came as thousands of members of the Tatar ethnic minority rallying in support of Ukraine's interim government clashed with demonstrators who favor Russian influence on the area. The opposing sides gathered outside the parliament building in Simferopol.


As the Tatars and local Ukrainians waved Ukrainian national flags and shouted "Down with Gang!" and "Shame!" both slogans addressed to the local parliament, hundreds of people from the local Russian community waved Russian national flags and shouted: "Russia! Russia!"

Soon both parties were throwing bottles, apples, sticks, shoes and stones at each other, Maxim Koshelev a local reporter for Inter, a private television network, told The Times in a phone interview.

Eventually, local parliament speaker Vladimir Konstantinov announced that parliament had canceled its Wednesday session, which generated cheers from the Tatar and Ukrainian crowd and shouts and whistles from the Russians.

"The issue of Crimea withdrawing from Ukraine is not on the [regional] parliament's agenda," he said in a speech. "It is a provocation aimed to discredit the autonomy's parliament and deprive it of its legitimacy."

The speaker blamed a group loyal to Yanukovich for causing the confrontation. “Fellow Crimeans, don't fall for this provocation,” he said.

The confrontation came as Ukrainian leaders in Kiev worked on forming an interim government after President Viktor Yanukovich fled last week. Yanukovich's departure followed the deaths of at least 82 people when police and security forces used clubs, snipers, stun guns and tear gas against protesters.

Flares, at least one smoke grenade and other objects flew over the sea of heads in the square in Simferopol. The leaders of both communities used loudspeakers to calm down their agitated audience.

"We need to live together peacefully as we did before and we need to go home now to our villages and towns and together patrol the streets and protect mosques, churches and synagogues," said local Tatar leader Refat Chubarov. "We need to learn the proper sense of the word patience." He repeated the word several times in Tatar, Ukrainian and Russian languages.

Chubarov said in a phone interview later that the demonstration Wednesday was a success.

"We have prevented the [local] parliament, which doesn't represent our interests at all, from asking Moscow to send in troops," Chubarov said. "Pro-Yanukovichs and pro-Moscow forces have been whipping up hysteria for more than three months now scaring the local Russians that fascists are coming to power in Ukraine and they will make the life of the Russian population in the Crimea a real hell."

Russian community leader Sergei Tsekov said he does not believe Moscow will send troops to Crimea, a peninsula that is home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet.

"The rumors that Putin will invade the Crimea with troops are rubbish, unless these idiots who are sitting in Kiev will try to come here and impose their order on us," Tsekov said in an interview published on the community's website. "If they unleash a war they should ask themselves a question: How will Russia act in such a situation?"

Medical officials said later that 30 people needed medical assistance because of the clashes in Simferopol, with six hospitalized, three of them in critical condition. The person found dead at the end of the rally had a heart condition, doctors said.

The Crimean Tatars were exiled by Josef Stalin in 1944, but returned shortly before Ukraine became independent.


The ethnic tensions flared up this week after the national parliament on Monday canceled the 2012 law on languages, which granted official status to some foreign languages in various parts of Ukraine, such as Russian in Crimea.

The new legislation on languages in no way infringes upon the right of people to speak in their ethnic tongues, opposition leader Oleg Tyagnibok said Wednesday.

"In daily life no one will prevent anyone from speaking the language you choose," Tyagnibok said in televised remarks. "I want to assure you that all this propaganda is conducted only with one purpose, to make us all quarrel amongst ourselves, destroy the territorial integrity of Ukraine."

Leonid Slutsky, the leader of a team of Russian lawmakers that planned to attend the Crimean parliament session Wednesday, said the situation in Crimea "and in Simferopol in particular" would not be ignored.

"Should a need arise we will be ready to take adequate actions on a real time scale to protect the interests of our compatriots living in Ukraine and living in Crimea," Slutsky said in an interview with Echo of Moscow radio station.