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Upheaval fuels Crimean protests

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — The revolutionary upheaval in Ukraine's faraway capital has awakened the separatist dreams of ethnic Russians living here on the Crimean Peninsula, where pro-Russia gunmen who occupied the regional parliament building were met with an outpouring of support Thursday.

A group of men dressed in camouflage and armed with rocket-propelled grenades entered the building early Thursday in the capital of Ukraine's Crimea region, according to local reporters, then barricaded themselves inside and raised the Russian flag on the roof — a succinct answer to warnings from the United States and Europe that Ukraine remain united and Russia stand back.

In the freezing weather outside the parliament, separatist fever was running hot, as newly formed self-defense militias paraded under Russian military colors. They shouted thanks to their Soviet grandfathers who fought against the Germans in World War II in the siege of nearby Sevastopol, a brutal 250-day campaign that left tens of thousands dead and the city in rubble.

By early morning, police had surrounded the Parliament, but it did nothing to oust the men who had stormed inside. The occupation began to seem like a bit of a show; it is possible the gunmen had already departed. Police officers out front showed no fear of anyone inside and, instead, turned their backs to the building, taking frequent breaks to smoke cigarettes and drink tea.

Meanwhile, thousands of ethnic Russians — who make up about half of the Crimea's population — arrived to demonstrate. They issued a warning to recalcitrant lawmakers here to give in to the crowd's No. 1 demand: a referendum on, at minimum, whether to allow the Crimea — an autonomous state — to become an even more independent region in Ukraine, with its own leadership, which many demonstrators hoped would enshrine Russian language and culture.

Others who came to the parliament clearly wanted much more, calling for the Crimea to return to the Russian motherland.

"The criminals had their revolution in Kiev, and now we are having ours in Crimea," said Alexandr, a member of another self-defense brigade. "We're Russian, and we belong to Russia."

Outside the parliament, voices in the crowd shouted, "Take us back!" as demonstrators unfurled a large Russian flag, sang patriotic Russian songs and denounced as "hooligans" the forces that ousted Viktor Yanukovych as president of Ukraine.

Asked what he thought would happen next, a Russian Block party politician from Sevastopol, Gennadiy Basov, said, "I have no idea."

Basov said the pro-Russia militias in the Crimea "are prepared to defend our homes and families" from any forces sent from the Kiev government.

"Everything coming out of Kiev is illegal," Basov said.

Upheaval fuels Crimean protests 02/27/14 [Last modified: Thursday, February 27, 2014 11:31pm]
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