Posted: Feb 26, 2014 7:32 AM
Updated: Feb 26, 2014 7:34 AM
SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (AP) Fistfights broke out between pro- and anti-Russian demonstrators in Ukraine's strategic Crimea region on Wednesday as Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered massive military exercises just across the border.
The tests of military readiness involve most of the military units in central and western Russia, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in a televised statement. He said the exercise would "check the troops' readiness for action in crisis situations that threaten the nation's military security."
He did not specifically mention the turmoil in Ukraine, which is bitterly divided between pro-European western regions and pro-Russian areas in the east and south.
Three months of protests forced pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovytch to go into hiding over the weekend as his foes set up an interim government following violent clashes between protesters and police that left more than 80 people dead.
In Crimea's regional capital of Simferopol, about 20,000 Muslim Tatars who rallied in support of the interim government clashed with a smaller pro-Russian rally. A health official said that at least 20 people have been injured.
The protesters shouted and attacked each other with stones, bottles and punches, as police and leaders of both rallies struggled to keep the two groups apart.
The tensions in Crimea a peninsula in southern Ukraine that is home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet highlight the divisions that run through this country of 46 million, and underscore fears that the country's mainly Russian-speaking east and south will not recognize the interim authorities' legitimacy.
Crimean Tatars are a Turkic Muslim ethnic group who have lived in Crimea for centuries. They were brutally deported in 1944 by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin but returned after Ukraine's independence.
"We will not let the fate of our land be decided without us," said Nuridin Seytablaev, a 54-year-old engineer. "We are ready to fight for Ukraine and our European future."
Nearby, separated by police lines, Anton Lyakhov, 52, waved a Russian flag. "Only Russia can defend us from fascists in Kiev and from Islamic radicals in Crimea," he said.
According to the Russian defense minister, the military will be on high alert for two days as some troops deploy to shooting ranges. The actual maneuvers will start Friday and will last four days, he said. The exercise will involve ships of the Baltic and the Northern Fleets and the air force.
The order came a day after a Russian lawmaker visiting Crimea said Moscow would protect the region's Russian-speaking residents, raising concerns that Russia might make a military move into Ukraine.
On Wednesday, Yanukovych's three predecessors as president issued a statement accusing Russia of "direct interference in the political life of Crimea."
Russian officials denied any plans to move militarily on Ukraine.
"That scenario is impossible," said Valentina Matvienko, speaker of the upper chamber of Russia's parliament, known as the Federation Council. She is a close Putin ally and was born in western Ukraine.
"Russia has been stating and reiterating its stance that we have no right and cannot interfere in domestic affairs of a sovereign state," she said. "We are for Ukraine as a united state, and there should be no basis for separatist sentiments."
In Kiev, the capital, protesters who have demanded that the new government be close to the people, cut down a fence surrounding the Parliament building.
Ukraine's acting interior minister ordered the disbandment of a feared riot police force that many accuse of attacks on protesters during the country's three-month political turmoil. Arsen Avakov wrote on his Facebook page that he had signed a decree to disband the force known as Berkut.
The protesters who were angered by Yanukovych's decision to ditch closer ties with the European Union and to turn to Moscow instead blamed Berkut for violent attacks against peaceful demonstrators.
Those attacks backfired, heightening anger against authorities and helping the protests attract crowds exceeding 100,000 and establishing an extensive tent camp in the capital's main downtown square.
The force, whose name means "golden eagle," consisted of about 5,000 officers. It was unclear Wednesday whether its members would be dismissed or reassigned to other units.
Yanukovych and protest leaders signed an agreement last week to end the conflict that left more than 80 people dead in just a few days. Shortly after, Yanukovych fled the capital for his powerbase in eastern Ukraine. His whereabouts are unknown.
In Lviv, a major city in the European-leaning west of Ukraine, leading cultural figures tried to defuse the tensions between the Russian-speaking east and the Ukrainian-speaking west, calling on residents to speak only Russian on Wednesday in a symbolic show of solidarity.
The call appeared to have had some effect.
"You can really hear a lot of Russian spoken on the streets of Lviv today," said Konstantin Beglov, one of the campaign's promoters, "although it often leads to funny situations because Lviv residents hardly ever speak Russian."
Associated Press writers Maria Danilova, Karl Ritter and Jim Heintz in Kiev and Svetlana Fedas in Lviv, Ukraine, contributed to this report.