Gunmen seize Crimean seat of power in Ukraine

Police officers guard the parliament building in Simferopol on Thursday. AFP PHOTO

Police officers guard the parliament building in Simferopol on Thursday. AFP PHOTO

SIMFEROPOL: Dozens of pro-Russian gunmen in combat fatigues seized parliament and government buildings on Ukraine’s volatile Crimea peninsula on Thursday as lawmakers in Kiev prepared to approve a pro-Western cabinet for the divided ex-Soviet state.

The dawn raid came a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered snap combat readiness drills near the Ukrainian border, which raised fears of the Kremlin using its military muscle to sway the outcome of a three-month crisis that has pitted Moscow against the West in a Cold War-style confrontation over the future of the strategic nation of 46 million.

The United States had late on Wednesday promised to secure a $1 billion loan guarantee that may be backed by an additional $1.5 billion from the European Union (EU) aimed at saving Ukraine’s teetering economy from a devastating debt default as early as next week.

The country’s new rulers have said they need $35 billion for the economically distressed country.

Ukraine’s bloodiest crisis since independence in 1991 erupted in November when Viktor Yanukovych—deposed as president last weekend—made the shock decision to ditch an historic EU trade deal in favour of closer ties with old master Russia, a move that won him a promise of $15 billion from Moscow.

But Ukraine appeared to take a decisive swing back toward the European Union by ousting Yanukovych’s entire pro-Russian team and replacing them with a new brand of younger pro-Western politicians who will steer the nation—torn between a Russified east and pro-European west—until snap presidential polls are held on May 25.

A new team headed by 39-year-old caretaker Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk—a close ally of the freed opposition icon Yulia Tymoshenko—was unveiled to an emotional crowd of 25,000 late on Wednesday on the same barricade-riven central Kiev square that had been the epicenter of the revolt against Yanukovych’s pro-Russian rule.

Lawmakers in Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada single-chamber parliament were due later
Thursday to overwhelmingly confirm the new cabinet, after Yanukovych supporters abandoned his Regions Party and joined the pro-EU opposition.

The Russian flag flew Thursday morning over both the Crimean parliament and government buildings in the regional capital of Simferopol.

The Black Sea autonomous region’s prime minister Anatoliy Mohilyov confirmed that up to 50 men with weapons seized the buildings and were preventing government workers from entering them early on Thursday.

Mohilyov said that he tried to enter the Crimean government building to conduct negotiations but was turned away by the gunmen.

“The gunmen who had seized the buildings said that they were not authorized to lead negotiations,” Mohilyov said in an official statement.



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