UK & World News

  • 10 March 2014, 11:15

Ukraine: Rival Rallies As Putin Defends Vote

Clashes have broken out between tens of thousands of pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian protesters at rival rallies across Ukraine, as Moscow continues to cement its control over Crimea.

In the Crimean port city of Sevastopol, pro-Russians gathered at Lenin Square holding flags and singing Russian songs to support the autonomous republic's upcoming referendum on joining Russia.

According to local media reports, scuffles then broke out, with claims that "whip-wielding Cossacks" had attacked their opponents.

In the eastern city of Luhansk, people who gathered in the main square to mark the 200th birth anniversary of Ukraine's national poet Taras Shevchenko were reportedly attacked by pro-Russia protesters.

Chanting "Russia! Russia!" the demonstrators then broke through a police barricade and took over the local government building, where they raised the Russian flag and demanded a citywide referendum on joining Russia, reports said.

A woman in the city claimed her son had been beaten up by pro-Russian demonstrators as they moved into the square carrying Russian flags.

In the eastern city of Donetsk, a rally in support of an undivided Ukraine was called off as hundreds of pro-Russian demonstrators disrupted the construction of the stage.

Riot police then asked people to leave the square to avoid further trouble.

The referendum, to be held on Sunday, will ask Crimeans whether they would like to remain part of Ukraine or join Russia. It has been denounced by the new Ukrainian government, which has vowed not to give up a "single centimetre" of territory.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has defended the breakaway move by pro-Moscow authorities in Crimea, despite warnings by the West that it is illegal.

According to the Kremlin, he told Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a phone call that "the steps taken by the legitimate leadership of Crimea are based on the norms of international law and aim to ensure the legal interests of the population of the peninsula".

But Chancellor Merkel said the referendum violated both Ukraine's constitution and international law.

However, Mr Putin also said he wanted to find a "diplomatic solution" to the crisis, and agreed the need to de-escalate tensions in Ukraine.

Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke to US President Barack Obama and said all sides needed to act with calm and that "political and diplomatic routes must be used to resolve the crisis", according to China's foreign ministry.

Meanwhile, video footage has emerged which appears to show pro-Russian forces firing on a Ukrainian military aircraft.

And there are signs Russia is flexing its economic as well as its military muscle, with reports it is likely to increase the price Ukraine pays for its gas supplies, having previously agreed to cut it.

Foreign observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe have also been turned away from the region after warning shots were fired as they approached.

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