Amid ethnic and military tensions, at 4:20am on February 27, a group of up to 120 armed Russian insurgents armed with automatic weapons seized the Crimean parliament in the capital of Simferopol. Reuters and Interfax are confirming the events. Insurgents shot at entryway doors, eventually breaking them down. Eyewitnesses described them as professionals (“like marines”) and heavily armed. The seizure was described as pre-meditated, and that in the first wave about 30 men broke into the building. The building was cordoned off by police but not well, and afterwards a bus arrived carrying the additional reinforcements who were carrying Kalashnikovs, SVD sniper rifles, RPGs, combinations devices, and ammunition.
The gunmen were unmarked but raised Russian flags. In particular, the Russian flag was raised over the capital building so as to signify its occupation. They wore black and orange St. George ribbons, a Russian and Soviet symbol used prominently by the now dissolved militant Ukrainian Front, and erected a sign saying ‘Crimea is Russia’, according to AP. The ribbons have also been worn by vigilantes in recent assaults in Kerch, Crimea.
A high-ranking Ukrainian official in Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry stated the insurgents were Russian: “Nobody can understand who took over, but it seems it’s the Russians,” the Foreign Ministry source said. Local authorities have claimed that the men were from local ‘self-defense’ militias. Pro-Russian groups have openly been openly recruiting for so-called “self defense” militias in recent days (video). Mustafa Jemilov, former head of the Mejilis of the Crimean Tatar people, believes them to be either Russian soldiers, or former Berkut soldiers loyal to Russia. Illegally installed, de facto mayor of the city of Sevastopol, Alexei Chaly, has actively recruited form former Berkut riot police who were dismissed by the government following the killings of nearly 100 in Kyiv. The renegade Berkut, armed with assault rifles, have been seen manning military checkpoints on Crimean highways under the Russian flag.
Eyewitnesses report that participants of the ongoing protests stayed overnight as the parliament remained barricaded with debris, and by sunset unmarked individuals were seen in full combat gear. One security guard was killed in the raid, and other police were released. At least 100 police surrounded parliament. Entrances to the building have since been sealed with wooden crates.
At this moment the armed men have no made any demands, saying they are not authorized to either hold talks or make demands. Lifenews reports that the gunmen informed protesters that they came to “protect the interests of the Russian population,” and KP quoted that they stated their rejection of the Kyiv government. They also informed that they would open fire on any who approached the building.
The Interior Minister Arsen Avakov has informed that the neighborhood around parliament has been cordoned off by police to prevent civilian casualties.
The event takes place one day after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered ordering a surprise military exercise of ground and air forces. The New York Times reports that residents have seen Russian military vehicles with greater frequency on their streets. In response to the occupation, Ukraine’s acting president Oleksandr Turchynov has called on Russian forces stationed in Sevastopol to not leave its naval base, and that any troop movement outside agreed territories would be considered an act of military aggression. Avakov meanwhile stated that he believed the group to be terrorists attempting to provoke a confrontation between Ukrainian and Russian military forces.
As a result of the standoff, Crimea’s parliament, at gunpoint, sacked its Cabinet and ordered a referendum on “autonomy” for May 25 to coincide with Ukraine’s presidential elections. The referendum will ask “Do you support the state independence of Crimea as part of Ukraine on the basis of treaties and agreements?”