Russia in patriotic fervor over Crimea
MOSCOW (AP) — Russia was swept up in patriotic fervor Friday in anticipation of bringing Crimea back into its territory, with tens of thousands of people thronging Red Square chanting "Crimea is Russia!" as a parliamentary leader declared the peninsula would be welcomed as an "equal subject" of Russia.
Ignoring sanctions threats and warnings from the US, leaders of both houses of parliament said they would support a vote by Crimeans to split with Ukraine and join Russia — signaling for the first time that the Kremlin was prepared to annex the strategic region.
Tensions in Crimea were heightened late Friday when pro-Russian forces tried to seize a Ukrainian military base in the port city of Sevastopol, the Ukrainian branch of the Interfax news agency reported. No shots were fired, but stun grenades were thrown, according to the report, citing Ukrainian officials.
About 100 Ukrainian troops stationed at the base barricaded themselves inside one of their barracks, and their commander began negotiations, the report said. Crimea's pro-Moscow leader denied any incident at the base.
In the week since Russia seized control of Crimea, Russian troops have been neutralising and disarming Ukrainian military bases on the Black Sea peninsula. Some Ukrainian units, however, have refused to give up. Crimea's new leader has said pro-Russian forces numbering more than 11,000 now control all access to region and have blockaded all military bases that haven't yet surrendered.
Only Tuesday, President Vladimir Putin said that Russia has no intention of annexing Crimea, though he has insisted that its residents have the right to determine the region's status in a referendum.
By Friday, however, Russian lawmakers were forging ahead with preparations for a possible annexation and welcoming a delegation from Crimea's regional parliament.
Valentina Matvienko, the speaker of Russia's upper house of parliament, made clear the country would welcome Crimea if it votes in the March 16 referendum to join its giant neighbour. About 60 per cent of Crimea's population identifies itself as Russian.
On the other side of Red Square from the parliament building, 65,000 people gathered at a Kremlin-organized rally in support of Crimea.
With a solitary Ukrainian athlete taking part in the opening ceremony, Putin opened the Winter Paralympics in Sochi on Friday against the backdrop of his country's military action in Crimea.
Ukraine delivered a pointed message by sending only a single flag-bearer to represent the 23-strong team in the athletes' parade. The appearance of biathlete Mykhaylo Tkachenko drew a roar from the capacity crowd as he entered in a wheelchair wearing a serious expression.
The Ukrainian team had announced only a few hours earlier that it would not boycott the games, but said it could pull out of the 10-day event if the Crimea situation escalates.
President Vladimir Putin in Red Square on Friday last carrying banners claiming that the Crimea is Russian soil. (PHOTO: AFP)