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Ukraine: Rival groups protest in divided Crimea

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SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (AP) — Fistfights broke out between pro- and anti-Russian demonstrators in Ukraine’s strategic Crimea region on Wednesday as Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly ordered tests of the combat readiness of troops just across the border.

Putin ordered the tests in central and western Russia, Russian state news agencies quoted Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu as saying. The reports did not mention the turmoil in Ukraine, which is bitterly divided between pro-European western regions and pro-Russian areas in the east and south, where Crimea is located.

The Kremlin said it could not confirm the order and the defense ministry was unavailable for comment.

In Crimea’s regional capital of Simferopol, more than 10,000 Muslim Tatars rallied in support of the three-month protest movement that sent President Viktor Yanukovytch into hiding last week and the interim government it has spawned. Waving Ukrainian flags, they chanted “Ukraine is not Russia!”

That group clashed with a smaller pro-Russian rally nearby in which participants waved Russian flags. Protesters shouted and punched one another, as police and leaders of both rallies struggled to keep the two groups apart.

The tensions in Crimea – a peninsula in southern Ukraine that is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet – highlight the divisions that run through this country of 46 million, and underscore fears that the country’s mainly Russian-speaking east and south will not recognize the interim authorities’ legitimacy.

Crimean Tatars took an active part in the protest movement against Yanukovych and harbor deep resentment toward the Kremlin, having been deported en masse on the orders of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin during World War II.

“We will not let the fate of our land be decided without us,” said Nuridin Seytablaev, a 54-year-old engineer. “We are ready to fight for Ukraine and our European future.”

Nearby, separated by police lines, Anton Lyakhov, 52, waved a Russian flag. “Only Russia can defend us from fascists in Kiev and from Islamic radicals in Crimea,” he said.

Putin’s reported order came a day after a Russian lawmaker visiting Crimea said Moscow would protect the region’s Russian-speaking residents, raising concerns that Russia might make a military move into Ukraine.

On Wednesday, Yanukovych’s three predecessors as president issued a statement accusing Russia of “direct interference in the political life of Crimea.”

Russian officials denied any plans to move militarily on Ukraine.

“That scenario is impossible,” said Valentina Matvienko, speaker of the upper chamber of Russia’s parliament, known as the Federation Council. She is a close Putin ally and was born in western Ukraine.

“Russia has been stating and reiterating its stance that we have no right and cannot interfere in domestic affairs of a sovereign state,” she said. “We are for Ukraine as a united state, and there should be no basis for separatist sentiments.”

In Kiev, the capital, Ukraine’s acting interior minister ordered the disbandment of a feared riot police force that many accuse of attacks on protesters during the country’s three-month political turmoil. Arsen Avakov wrote on his Facebook page that he had signed a decree to disband the force known as Berkut.

The protesters – who were angered by Yanukovych’s decision to ditch closer ties with the European Union and to turn to Moscow instead – blamed Berkut for violent attacks against peaceful demonstrators.

Those attacks backfired, heightening anger against authorities and helping the protests attract crowds exceeding 100,000 and establishing an extensive tent camp in the capital’s main downtown square.

The force, whose name means “golden eagle,” consisted of about 5,000 officers. It was unclear Wednesday whether its members would be dismissed or reassigned to other units.

Yanukovych and protest leaders signed an agreement last week to end the conflict that left more than 80 people dead in just a few days. Shortly after, Yanukovych fled the capital for his powerbase in eastern Ukraine. His whereabouts are unknown.

In Lviv, a major city in the European-leaning west of Ukraine, leading cultural figures tried to defuse the tensions between the Russian-speaking east and the Ukrainian-speaking west, calling on residents to speak only Russian on Wednesday in a symbolic show of solidarity.

The call appeared to have had some effect.

“You can really hear a lot of Russian spoken on the streets of Lviv today,” said Konstantin Beglov, one of the campaign’s promoters, “although it often leads to funny situations because Lviv residents hardly ever speak Russian.”

Associated Press writers Maria Danilova, Karl Ritter and Jim Heintz in Kiev and Svetlana Fedas in Lviv, Ukraine, contributed to this report.

Ukraine: Rival groups protest in divided Crimea

KDWN

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (AP) — Police struggled to keep apart rival groups holding competing rallies Wednesday in Ukraine’s largely pro-Russian Crimea region where the regional parliament was to hold a crisis session on the turmoil that has gripped the country.

Over 10,000 Muslim Crimean Tatars rallied in support of Ukraine’s interim leaders, waving Ukrainian flags and chanting “Ukraine is not Russia” and “Allahu Akbar,” while a smaller pro-Russian rally nearby called for stronger ties with Russia and waving Russian flags.

Police and leaders from both sides were struggling to keep the two groups apart, as protesters shouted and punched each other in ongoing scuffles.

The tensions in Crimea – a peninsula jutting into the Black Sea that is strategically critical region because it is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet – highlight the divisions that run through this country of 46 million after months of protests that ultimately forced the pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych to flee the capital. It also underscores fears that the country’s mainly Russian-speaking east will not recognized the interim authorities’ legitimacy.

Crimean Tatars took an active part in the protest movement against Yanukovych and harbor deep resentment against the Kremlin, having been deported en masse on the orders of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin during the World War II.

“We will not let the fate of our land to be decided without us,” said Nuridin Seytablaev, 54, an engineer. “We are ready to fight for Ukraine and our European future.”

Nearby, separated by police lines, Anton Lyakhov, 52, waved a Russian flag. “Only Russian can defend us from fascists in Kiev and from Islamic radicals in Crimea.”

On Tuesday, a Russian lawmaker visiting Crimea said Moscow would protect the region’s Russian-speaking residents, raising concern that Russia could be trying to justify military action.

Valentina Matvienko, speaker of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, on Wednesday dismissed claims that Russia could conduct a military operation in Ukraine. “That scenario is impossible,” she said.

“Russia has been stating and reiterating its stance that we have no right and cannot interfere in domestic affairs of a sovereign state,” said Matvienko, a close Putin ally who was born in western Ukraine. “We are for Ukraine as a united state, and there should be no basis for separatist sentiments.”

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s acting interior minister on Wednesday ordered the disbandment of a feared riot police force that many accuse of attacks on protesters during the country’s three-month political turmoil.

Arsen Avakov wrote on his Facebook page that he has signed a decree to disband the force known as Berkut and said more detail would be announced later.

Anti-government protesters have blamed Berkut for violent attacks against peaceful demonstrators protesting authorities’ decision to ditch closer ties with the European Union and turn to Moscow instead. Those attacks galvanized long-brewing anger against police and the protests quickly grew into a massive movement, attracting crowds exceeding 100,000 and establishing an extensive tent camp in the capital’s main downtown square.

The force, whose name means “golden eagle,” consisted of about 5,000 officers. It was unclear Wednesday if its members would be dismissed or if they would be reassigned to other units.

Yanukovych and protest leaders signed an agreement last week to end the conflict that left more than 80 people dead in just a few days in Kiev. Shortly after, Yanukovych fled the capital for his powerbase in eastern Ukraine but his exact whereabouts are unknown.

On Wednesday, Yanukovych’s three predecessors as Ukraine’s president issued a statement accusing Russia of “direct interference in the political life of Crimea.”

The turmoil has raised concern that Ukraine is facing a split between Russian-speaking regions, which include Yanukovych’s home area in the east, and the Ukrainian-speaking west.

Associated Press writers Maria Danilova and Jim Heintz in Kiev contributed to this report.