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.”
Avakov said Ukraine’s police, loyal to the new government, and Interior Ministry troops were on red alert. He called the attackers “provocateurs” but wouldn’t specify what actions his agency was taking.
Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksander Turchinov, addressed the Russian navy command and demanded their forces in Ukraine stay confined to their bases. “Any movement of (Russian navy) forces outside, especially if they are armed, will be considered a military aggression against Ukraine.”
Crimea Premier Anatoly Mogilev said the attackers called themselves “the protectors of the Russian people” but said they were not authorized to negotiate, a statement on the regional government’s website said.
After 10 a.m., the attackers suddenly began to let Crimean lawmakers in to take part in a parliament session, UNIAN reported.
The attackers raised Russian national flags over both buildings.
“I have information that several armored personnel vehicles were heading toward Simferepol,” Refat Chubarov, head of the Crimean Tatar community, said in a phone interview with The Times. “I asked our community people to stay calm and not to succumb to provocations.”
Chubarov was in charge of organizing a protest Wednesday in front of Crimea’s parliament building, during which Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians clashed with ethnic Russians who demanded Russian military assistance and the secession of Crimea from Ukraine.
City medical authorities said two people died and about 30 were injured in the clashes.
“Witnesses say they have seen several Russian armored personnel carriers moving toward Simferopol from the Russian navy base at the village of Gvardeyskoye (not far from the capital),” Maxim Koshelev, a reporter with Inter, a private television network, said in a phone interview with the Times. Gvardeyskoye serves as a base and airstrip for the Russian navy in the Crimea, he said.
Sergei L. Loiko/Los Angeles Times/MCT