SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine – 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.
In the regional capital of Simferopol, 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 waved Russian flags.
Protesters shouted and punched each other in ongoing scuffles, as police and leaders from both sides struggled to keep the two groups apart.
The tensions in Crimea – a peninsula jutting into the Black Sea that is strategically critical 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 recognize 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 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 Russia 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.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, has reportedly ordered an immediate test of combat readiness of troops in central and western Russia.
Russia’s state news agencies quoted Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu as saying that Putin ordered the test at 2 p.m. Moscow time on Wednesday. The report did not mention Ukraine. The Kremlin was unable to confirm the order. The defense ministry was unavailable for comment.
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.
Russian officials have voiced concerns that the protest movement in Ukraine is led by nationalists who are set on destroying the Russian culture and marginalizing the language in Russian-speaking areas.
To allay such concerns and show solidarity with their Russian-speaking countrymen, leading cultural figures in the western city of Lviv called on residents there to speak Russian on Wednesday. The call appeared to have had some effect.
“You can really hear a lot of Russian spoken on the streets of Lviv today, although it often leads to funny situations because Lviv residents hardly ever speak Russian,” said Konstantin Beglov, who lives in the city and promoted the appeal on Facebook.
Associated Press writers Maria Danilova, Karl Ritter and Jim Heintz in Kiev and Svetlana Fedas in Lviv, Ukraine, contributed to this report.