- POSTED: 28 Feb 2014 19:10
Armed with Kalashnikovs and looking ready for battle in full combat uniform, dozens of men patrolled outside Crimea's main airport on Friday as tensions mounted over the strategic Ukrainian peninsula where many long for Russia.
SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine: Armed with Kalashnikovs and looking ready for battle in full combat uniform, dozens of men patrolled outside Crimea's main airport on Friday as tensions mounted over the strategic Ukrainian peninsula where many long for Russia.
Dressed in army-green fatigues with a black badge on the upper right arm, wearing flak helmets and bullet-proof vests, the men refused to speak to journalists, and it was not immediately clear what army or paramilitary group they belonged to.
They simply patrolled outside, a silent, sombre presence that stood in stark contrast to the brightly dressed passengers pitching up for morning flights at the Simferopol international airport, which an official said was operating normally despite the heavy contingent of armed men outside its doors.
Ukraine's new government pointed the finger at Russia, accusing it of an "armed invasion" of the airport as well as an airfield in the southwest of the peninsula, where ethnic Russians are a majority and where pro-Moscow sentiment runs high.
Pro-Russian unarmed activists nearby said the armed men had arrived at the airport in the middle of the night following rumours that members of the new pro-West government were planning to fly in.
The activists, who were unarmed, said they were "volunteers" who were there to maintain order.
"We're here to prevent fascists or radicals from western Ukraine from coming here by plane," said Vladimir, 46, a former military officer dressed in an army jacket.
The comment was a clear reference to the protesters whose three-month campaign against pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych brought his downfall at the weekend, a movement condemned by its critics in eastern Ukraine as rife with neo-Nazis and radical nationalists.
"We'll stay here as long as necessary," Vladimir added.
Standing beside him, Vadim, a young engineer wearing sneakers, said he was "not an extremist".
"We're here to maintain public order. We're not blocking anything. But if the nationalist criminals arrive, we're going to fight them. We'll find arms if we need them," he said.
At the bus station in Simferopol, the regional capital, another group of five young men paced up and down, saying they too were determined to stop extremists from descending on Crimea, a peninsula given to Ukraine as a symbolic gift by a Soviet leader in 1954, and which has housed Russia's Black Sea fleet for nearly 250 years.
The bus station was calm, Ukraine's yellow-and-blue flag still flying above the building -- "for now", said a taxi driver.
But separatist commandos still controlled the regional parliament and government building in Simferopol, after seizing it Thursday and hoisting the Russian flag to chants of "Russia! Russia!" from hundreds of supporters outside.
After the raid, local lawmakers voted to hold a referendum on May 25 to expand the region's autonomy from Kiev, and replaced the local government with a pro-Moscow official.
"We want this referendum because we want to be free and not under the power of the nationalists in the west," said Maria, an elementary school teacher, outside the parliament after the vote.
"The trouble all started in Kiev, the coup and the murders. Who let them do those things? That's why we're keeping our Crimea," said Anatoli, a factory worker, adding: "We love Russia."