By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times
KIEV, Ukraine — Gunmen early Thursday captured the parliament and Cabinet buildings in Simferopol, the capital of Ukraine’s autonomous republic of Crimea, an official said.
Ukraine lawmaker and Crimea native Andrei Semchenko told the Los Angeles Times that two units of gunmen struck about 5:30 a.m. He described the men as wearing camouflage clothing and “armed to the teeth, including heavy machine guns.”
“They used a couple of stun grenades to break in and pushed the police guards stationed inside out into the street,” Semchenko said. “They acted very professionally and seemed to be fully aware of the location of offices and infrastructure in both buildings.”
Semchenko said the attackers spoke Russian. The number of the attackers deployed inside the Cabinet building was about 50 and those in the parliament building numbered about 70, Semchenko said.
“We have no reports of fire exchange or casualties resulting from the attack,” he said. “It looked like a meticulously planned and organized special force operation.”
Semchenko refrained from speculating who the attackers may be, but the UNIAN news agency reported that Ukraine’s interim government called in a Russian envoy and demanded immediate consultations with Russia over the Crimea situation.
In the meantime, ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich asked Russia to provide security for him, UNIAN reported. Yanukovich still considers himself Ukraine’s legitimate president and charges that “extremists” captured power, plunging the nation into “lawlessness,” the report said.
“I am convinced that under these conditions, all the decisions (of the interim government) will soon prove inefficient and will not be implemented,” Yanukovich was quoted as saying.
Some experts believe that Yanukovich is already in Moscow.
The attackers who captured the government buildings in the Crimean capital told the Russian daily Izvestia that they demand a referendum on whether the Crimean peninsula should remain in Ukraine or become part of Russia.
Russia recently pledged not to interfere in Ukraine’s internal affairs but has a sizable armed contingent in the Crimea. The republic houses the Russian Black Sea fleet in the port of Sevastopol, whose population is predominantly Russian. There are also several military support installations and bases across the peninsula under command of the Russian navy.
To prevent bloodshed among civilians, the government district in Simferopol was taken under police protection, Ukraine’s acting interior minister, Arsen Avakov, said in statement posted on his Facebook page.
“We have undertaken a number of other measures to halt the development of extremist actions and to prevent the situation from deteriorating into an armed confrontation in the center of the city,” Avakov wrote in his post. “It is the time for a cool head, consolidation of healthy forces and for acting with precision.”