Ukraine sends troops to Crimea

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - Ukraine sent top military officials and more special troops to the Crimean Peninsula yesterday amid fears of an impending crackdown on separatists.

The arrival of 30 special troops from the National Guard and Interior Ministry, added to 500 others newly moved to a Sevastopol naval base, gives Ukraine 51,000 troops in Crimea, the ITAR-Tass news service said. That compares with 18,000 two years ago.

Adding to the tension, the recently elected Crimean President, Yuri Meshkov, was several hours overdue in returning from Cyprus. And the commander of the Black Sea Fleet was hospitalised after reportedly shooting himself in the leg accidentally.

The odd series of events, heading into Sunday's third round of crucial parliamentary elections in Ukraine, increased speculation that Kiev may take strong steps to halt growing separatist moves.

After Crimean residents voted overwhelmingly for closer ties with Russia in an unofficial plebiscite on 27 March, nationalist politicians warned that armed conflict is likely this spring in the southern peninsula, where Russians comprise a majority.

A spokesman for Mr Meshkov, Vladimir Ivanovich Kodin, said from Simferopol that the Crimea was quiet yesterday night despite rumours of shooting. He said Mr Meshkov was due back by early today but did not explain why he was several hours late, as widely reported by Russian media.

Ukrainian officials tried to allay concerns about a build-up. Valery Grishankov, chief of staff to President Leonid Kravchuk, said it was 'sheer coincidence' that several top generals had assembled together yesterday along with top security and interior officials.

Mr Kravchuk, however, renewed political pressure on Crimea. He described as 'illegal and unconstitutional' Mr Meshkov's decree firing the influential head of the Crimean radio and television company, Valery Astakhov, and said he was canceling it.

Mr Kravchuk also had ruled illegal the 27 March plebiscite that Mr Meshkov ordered. In that vote, nearly 75 per cent of Crimeans who participated said they favored giving the Black Sea peninsula greater autonomy from Ukraine and allowing dual Ukrainian-Russian citizenship.

The Black Sea Fleet is poised to go on alert if there is a conflict on the peninsula, ITAR-Tass said.