SIMFEROPOL, February 27 (RIA Novosti) – Unidentified armed men apparently seeking closer ties with Russia on Thursday seized the parliament in the Crimean Peninsula in southern Ukraine.
The occupation comes a day after crowds of Crimean Tatars scuffled outside the building with pro-Russians, who have said they reject the rule of the leadership that has taken over the country since President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted over the weekend. The local Muslim Tatar population largely supports the incoming government in Kiev.
“We came to work but we can’t get inside the parliament. The building is surrounded by police … we were told that the building has been seized,” a spokesperson for the parliament said.
A Russian flag was reportedly hoisted by pro-Russian self-defense squads that stormed the building in the regional capital, Simferopol. The squads have been forming in predominantly ethnic Russian Crimea since Yanukovych was toppled.
The offices of Crimea’s Cabinet were also reportedly been seized overnight. Footage from the parliament showed Thursday that small barricades had been erected outside the building.
Crimean Prime Minister Anatoly Mogilev said he conducted negotiations with the men inside the parliament, but said he was told the group does not have the authority to put forward demands, according to a statement on the Crimean government website.
Police had set up a cordon around the parliament and the men inside were allowing deputies to enter and exit.
Ukraine’s acting Interior Minister confirmed the seizure by men with automatic weapons and machine guns in a Facebook post Thursday.
“The alarm has been raised among Interior Ministry troops and the police,” he said. “Measures have been taken to… prevent the situation developing into an armed confrontation in the center of the city.”
Prosecutors in Ukraine said in a statement that they had opened a terrorism case regarding the storming.
The legislative body was due to consider a motion on whether to hold a local referendum giving Crimea greater autonomy Thursday afternoon.
On Thursday evening, the parliament resolved to hold the referendum on May 25. The proposal was supported by 61 lawmakers out of 64 present at the session, a parliament spokesman said.
Crimean residents will have to answer the following question: “do you support Crimea’s self-determination as a part of Ukraine, on the basis of international treaties and agreements?”
It is yet unclear whether the negative answer to that question indicates support for the declaration of independence.
Many of pro-Russian protesters, who had gathered outside the building and unfurled a huge Russian flag, hailed the decision, while others said they were puzzled by the vague wording of the question. Some protestors also demanded to hold the referendum at an earlier date.
The parliament also voted to approve Serhiy Aksenov, a leader of the “Russian Unity” party, as head of the region’s government. Crimea’s new prime minister immediately pledged allegiance to Yanukovych, saying that he considered him still Ukraine's legitimate head of state.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s acting president Oleksandr Turchynov sacked his envoy to the region, Viktor Plakyda, and appointed in his place Serhiy Kunytsyn, a member of Vitali Klitschko's Udar party and the former head of the republic’s cabinet of ministers.
Crimea is an autonomous republic within Ukraine and has its own prime minister, who is appointed in agreement with central government in Kiev.
Some local pro-Russian groups, fearful of the nationalist rhetoric emanating from Kiev in recent days, have called for Crimea to secede from Ukraine and asked for Russia to intervene. Pro-Russian demonstrations, where protesters wave Russian flags, have been held in several regional cities since the weekend.
Crimea was part of Russia until 1954, when it was transferred to the Ukrainian republic within the Soviet Union. Russia has a large naval base on the peninsula on which it recently extended a lease until 2042.
Updates with the parliament’s decision to hold referendum, new appointments