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Ukraine confronts rebellious Crimea

A DANGEROUS war of nerves between Crimea and Ukraine escalated sharply yesterday with what amounted to a declaration of independence by parliament in the autonomous Black Sea peninsula.

In Kiev, the Ukrainian parliament responded by suspending Crimea's constitution. Ukrainian MPs gave the Crimean assembly 30 days to 'conform with the laws and constitution of Ukraine'. Ukraine's Defence Minister, Vitaly Radetsky, warned that 'the toughest, extreme, measures will be taken against violations of the state border and territorial integrity of Ukraine'.

Despite earlier warnings by the Ukrainian President, Leonid Kravchuk, the Crimean legislature voted to establish separate Crimean citizenship, its own militia and a revamped system of military service which will allow conscripts to serve in Crimea and thus avoid being sent to parts of Ukraine more firmly under Kiev's control.

The prerogatives are part of a constitution introduced in 1992 but then withdrawn after Ukraine agreed to grant Crimea autonomous status. A newly-elected parliament, stacked with Russian nationalists who believe Crimea should be part of Russia, yesterday buried the 1992 compromise and voted 69-2 to revive the former constitution. It stipulates that relations between Crimea and Ukraine be fixed by treaty.

As furious politicians in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev called for a firm response to what was widely seen as an assault on Ukrainian sovereignty, Russian President Boris Yeltsin said he had spoken by telephone with Mr Kravchuk and secured assurances that force would not be used to bring Crimea to heel. 'I trust his word. The Ukrainian President is a solid, reliable man,' Mr Yeltsin said.

More cynical was Russia's Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, who claimed that Ukraine had sent troops, including Spetsnaz special forces, to Crimea, apparently to intimidate the local legislature. Ukraine has denied similar assertions made by the Russian news agency Tass earlier this week.

Mr Grachev, who last month stormed out of talks with Ukraine over the disputed Black Sea Fleet stationed in Crimea, has taken an inreasingly hardline stand against Ukraine. He yesterday warned that 'a fire could flare up if the situation is not resolved at the negotiating table in the near future'. Russia is pressuring Ukraine not only to give up its share of the Black Sea Fleet but also control of its home port of Sevastopol in Crimea.

Room for negotiation, though, is shrinking fast. As well as the vexed issue of the Black Sea Fleet - important more for symbolic than military reasons - is the volatile question of Crimea's status.

Crimea's decision is the most serious affront yet to Ukraine's hold on the region, where nearly two- thirds of the population is Russian and where strongly pro-Russian candidates triumphed in January's presidential poll and parliamentary elections in April.

Radical Ukrainian nationalists such as Oleg Vitovich, commander of the Lvov region UNA-UNSO para-military group, demanded the immediate disbanding of the Crimean government. Such steps would inflame what is probably the most dangerous flashpoint in the former Soviet Union and bring closer the nightmare scenario of armed conflict between Ukraine and Russia, the two most populous republics of the former Soviet Union, both of them armed with nuclear weapons.

Conquered by Russia in the 18th century, Crimea was transferred to Ukraine in 1954 by Nikita Khrushchev - a gesture which meant nothing so long as the Soviet Union remained intact but which, since its collapse, has turned Crimea into a tinderbox of tension.