Local ethnic Russian ‘self-defense squads’ have taken control of and raised Russian flags over the buildings of the Crimean parliament and government in the region’s capital, Simferopol.
Despite the seizure, local MPs managed to hold a session, where they decided upon having a referendum on the future of Ukraine’s Autonomous Republic of Crimea, which is divided over the acceptance of new authorities in Kiev.
Thousands gathered in front of the parliament building on Wednesday with crowds split between those supporting the new government and those calling for integration with Russia. Two people died and over 30 were injured in clashes.
At around 4am local time on Thursday, an unknown group of people barricaded themselves inside the buildings. According to local officials, those people might have been armed.
The men wore black and orange ribbons, a Russian symbol of the victory in World War II, according to AP. They placed a Russian flag on top of the Council of Ministers.
Journalists who in the morning tried to approach the parliament building had a stun grenade fired at them. RT’s video agency Ruptly filmed the incident.
“We will swiftly inform Crimeans of the current developments today. Everything is under control, the negotiating process is under way,” Prime Minister of Crimea Anatoly Mogilyov told a local TV station.
— Фото из Симферополя (@InstaSimferopol) February 27, 2014
The country’s police and Interior Ministry troops have been on alert in connection with the situation in Crimea, Arsen Avakov, Ukraine’s acting interior minister said on his Facebook page.
Avakov said the areas around the seized buildings have been cordoned off by police to prevent civilian casualties.
Law enforcement authorities are stationed next to the Council of Ministers, with officers banning people from approaching the building, Interfax-Ukraine reported, citing the press service of the Crimean parliament.
— Vagabond (@kenzolika) February 27, 2014
The buildings are reportedly occupied by ‘self-defense squads’ of 50 Russian-speaking locals each. They allowed those who were inside at the moment of seizure to leave.
They later let inside the seized parliament around 15 Crimean MPs, including the speaker Vladimir Konstantinov.
Around 400 protesters, demanding a referendum on the status of Crimea, have gathered near the parliament building, according to RIA Novosti.
Activists have been holding banners reading “Crimea for peace!” and “Crimea for a referendum!”
Earlier in the day Crimean Prime Minister Anatoly Mogilyov spoke to those who barricaded themselves inside parliament and government buildings. The squads’ members said they were not authorized to either hold talks or make demands. Mogilyov gave the men his phone number for further attempts to resolve the situation.
Ukraine's acting President Aleksandr Turchinov has said the buildings in Crimea were seized by "criminals in military fatigues," Reuters reports. Turchinov has called on citizens to remain calm.
The Prosecutor General’s office in Ukraine has opened criminal
investigation into the incidents of separatism in Crimea.
“Ukrainian flags are being abused in Crimea, Russian flags are being raised. We treat our neighbors with great respect, but Ukrainian laws apply in Ukraine and the country will not allow illegal actions,” Ukrainian Prosecutor General Oleg Makhnitsky told News of Crimea.
Local police have asked Simferopol residents not to go downtown, according to Olga Kondrashova, the head of the press service of the Crimean police.
“Police are providing security in the area. We call on the residents of Simferopol and Crimea to stay calm, not to panic and try to avoid going to the city center,” she said as cited by RIA Novosti.
Outside the sealed off center Simferopol residents are reportedly leading their normal everyday life. There are a lot of people on the streets, most of the shops and cafes are open.