Pro-Russian demonstrators on Wednesday brawled with supporters of Ukraine’s new interim authorities in the capital of the Russophone peninsula of Crimea Simferopol, as the local government ruled out debating splitting from Kiev.
Scuffles erupted as thousands of pro-Moscow residents and Muslim Crimean Tatars backing the new leadership in Kiev held competing rallies outside the regional parliament, amid fears that Ukraine’s pro-Moscow east could push for partition following the weekend ousting of Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych.
The two sets of demonstrators attacked each other with pepper spray and used batons as police struggled to keep them apart, an AFP journalist at the scene said.
Ambulances were called and several demonstrators could be seen nursing minor injuries before crowds started to disperse following appeals from local lawmakers for them to go home.
Meanwhile the head of the parliament of the autonomous region — where Russia’s Black Sea fleet has been based for some 200 years — rejected demands to discuss breaking away from the rest of Ukraine at an emergency session Wednesday, dismissing the idea as a “provocation”.
Up until 1954, Crimea belonged to Russia but it was then given to the Ukrainian Soviet republic by USSR leader Nikita Khrushchev and has long been seen as a potential source of conflict.
Ukraine’s interim leader Oleksandr Turchynov on Tuesday warned against “dangerous signs of separatism” after some 10,000 pro-Russian protesters took to the main square of the Crimean port town of Sevastopol over the weekend.
Western countries have warned the Kremlin not to meddle with Ukraine’s territorial integrity and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov toned down the rhetoric from Moscow on Tuesday by saying it was sticking to a policy of “non-interference”.
The avalanche of change in the deeply divided former Soviet state came after scores of demonstrators were killed in Kiev last week when three months of anti-Yanukovych protests exploded into violence.
The demonstrations were sparked in November by Yanukovych’s decision to spurn a historic pact with the EU in favour of closer ties with old master Russia, and grew into a titanic diplomatic tug-of-war over Ukraine’s future direction.