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Protesters Storm Crimean Parliament

Pro-Russian activists push against Crimean Tatar protesters during a protest near the parliament building in Simferopol, Crimea, on February 26.
Pro-Russian activists push against Crimean Tatar protesters during a protest near the parliament building in Simferopol, Crimea, on February 26.
SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine -- Anti-Russian protesters have stormed the parliament building in Ukraine's autonomous Crimea republic.

Some protesters required medical aid after fighting broke out between rival groups of demonstrators during the unrest in the Crimean capital, Simferopol, on February 26. One man was reported to have died from an apparent heart attack.

In Moscow, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russia would take measures to ensure the security of the facilities and weapons of Russia's Black Sea Naval Fleet, which is based on the Crimean coast. Many Russian speakers live in Crimea, and the region is considered pro-Russian.

The storming of the parliament disrupted an extraordinary session in which Crimean lawmakers were debating the future of the peninsula following the ouster of Russian-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

Speaking to anti-Russian protesters inside parliament, lawmaker Refat Chubarov, a leader of the Crimean Tatar minority, warned against moves that could see Crimea annexed by Russia.

Chubarav is a supporter of the new Ukrainian authorities.

"We urged [lawmakers] not to convene the session [on the future of Crimea], not to aggravate the situation in Crimea," he said. "It was clear even yesterday that the session was being convened with one single purpose -- to take actions today which would lead to the separation of Crimea from Ukraine and its unification with Russia."

During the confrontation between rival protesters, anti-Russian demonstrators who support Ukraine's new authorities burned a red flag symbolizing the Soviet Union.

LIVE BLOG: Crisis In Ukraine

Earlier on February 26, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an urgent drill to test the combat readiness of the armed forces across western Russia. Ukraine borders Russia's western military district.

In another development, the British defense secretary, Philip Hammond, told reporters that Britain will pay attention to Russian military activities. He said London opposes Russian interference in Ukraine.

The tensions in Crimea highlight the divisions that have split Ukraine since late November when ousted President Viktor Yanukovych suddenly decided to step away from signing an Association Agreement with the European Union, sparking the mass protest movement that resulted in his fleeing Kyiv last weekend.

On February 25, in an apparent reference to Crimea, Ukraine's acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said he was concerned about "signs of separatism" and threats to Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

Crimean Tatars, the peninsula's indigenous people, took an active part in the protest movement against Yanukovych and harbor deep resentment against the Kremlin, having been deported en masse to Central Asia on the orders of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin during World War II.

Russian officials have voiced concerns that the anti-Yanukovych protest movement in Ukraine is led by nationalists who seek to marginalize Russian culture and language in Ukraine.

Pro-Russian activists staged rallies in Crimea following Yanukovych's ouster, raising the Russian flag on government buildings in Sevastopol, where Russia's Black Sea Fleet is stationed, and in Simferopol.

In a joint statement issued on February 26, three former Ukrainian presidents -- Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma, and Viktor Yushchenko -- accused Russia of "direct interference in the political life in Crimea."

The three former presidents warned against "dangerous recipes" proposed by some politicians. They urged law enforcement authorities to examine separatist calls, allegations about violations of the rights of the Russian-speaking population, as well as the "fomenting of hostility" between Ukraine's regions and cases of "open disrespect for Ukraine's state symbols."

Crimea was a subject of the Russian federation within the Soviet Union, until it was joined to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954.
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