Tensions flared in the southern Ukrainian region of Crimea, as demonstrators pushing for a referendum on joining Russia clashed with members of the Tatar ethnic minority.
Thousands of flag-waving protesters from both sides gathered yesterday outside the local parliament’s building in Simferopol, the regional capital.
Lawmakers are hold an emergency session to discuss whether to support the plebiscite.
A vote for the referendum would be “symbolic,” rather than binding, assembly spokesperson Lyudmila Mokhova said by phone.
Divisions between the Ukrainian-speaking west and center and the pro-Russia east and south are straining the country’s unity after the nation’s bloodiest week since World War II toppled former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s Kremlin-backed regime.
The EU urged all sides to preserve Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Crimea, part of Russia until 1954 and home to its Black Sea fleet, has become the focus of tension.
Pro-Russia lawmakers “just want to protect their Russian language and Russian culture,” Sergey Aksenov, a member of the group in parliament, said on Ukraine’s Channel 5.
Tatars, who returned to their native land after Josef Stalin deported them under accusations of Nazi collaboration, are waving Ukrainian and Crimean flags, chanting: “Crimea is not Russia,” images broadcast by Espreso TV showed.
Pro-Russian organizations who represent the autonomous region’s majority ethnic group have been camped out in the area since Tuesday, with more than 7,000 people are rallying and their number is growing, Channel 5 reported.
The Tatar minority has supported the protests that erupted in November last year after Yanukovych snubbed an agreement with the EU in exchange for a US$15 billion bailout from Russia.