As a Russian flag flew Tuesday in front of the city council building in Sevastopol — a key Crimean port where Russia's Black Sea Fleet is based — an armoured Russian personnel carrier and two trucks full of troops made a rare appearance on the streets of the city.
The Crimean Peninsula — a pro-Russian region about the size of Massachusetts or Belgium — is a tinder pot in the making.
Protesters had torn down the Ukrainian flag a day ago, pleading with Moscow to protect them from the new authorities in Ukraine who have forced President Viktor Yanukovych to flee Kyiv, the capital, and go into hiding.
"Bandits have come to power," said Vyacheslav Tokarev, a 39-year-old construction worker in Sevastopol. "I'm ready to take arms to fight the fascists who have seized power in Kyiv."
Yanukovych's whereabouts are unknown but he was last reportedly seen in the Crimea. Law enforcement agencies have issued an arrest warrant for Yanukovych over the killing of 82 people, mainly protesters, last week in the bloodiest violence in Ukraine's post-Soviet history.
Chanting "Russia, save us!" the protesters gathered for a third day before administrative buildings in Sevastopol and in other Crimean cities. The protests Sunday numbered in the thousands.
"We won't allow them to wipe their feet on us," protester Anatoly Mareta said in Sevastopol, wearing the colours of the Russian flag on his arm. "Only Russia will be able to protect the Crimea."
"I hope for the Ossetian way," he said, referring to the brief but fierce 2008 Russian-Georgian war in which Russian tanks and troops helped the separatist provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to break free of Georgian control. Russia has recognized both as independence states, but few other nations have.
Russia, which has thousands of Black Sea Fleet seamen at its base in Sevastopol, so far has refrained from any sharp moves in Ukraine's political turmoil but could be drawn into the fray if there are confrontations between Crimean population and supporters of the new authorities.
The open movement of Russian military vehicles — normally avoided in Sevastopol per Ukrainian request — was seen as a reflection of the tensions gripping the city.
A senior Russian lawmaker, meanwhile, promised protesters that Russia will protect its Russian-speaking compatriots in Ukraine.
"If lives and health of our compatriots are in danger, we won't stay aside," Leonid Slutsky told activists in Simferopol, the regional capital of Crimea.
Slutsky, who heads a parliamentary committee in charge of relations with other ex-Soviet republics, also promised that the Russian parliament is considering a bill to offer Crimea residents and others in Ukraine a quick way of getting Russian citizenship.
He also declared that Yanukovych remains the only legitimate leader of Ukraine, adding there is a "big question mark" over the legitimacy of the decisions made by the Ukrainian parliament since he left the seat of power.
Ukraine's new authorities are clearly concerned about the tensions in Crimea. The country's interim leader, Oleksandr Turchinov, met with top security officials Tuesday to discuss the situation there.
In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin also summoned his top security officials Tuesday to discuss the situation in Ukraine, but no details of the meeting were released.
Some in the Crimea have voiced fears that radical nationalists, who played a prominent role in the protests in Kyiv that toppled Yanukovych, could launch forays into the region to punish it for its pro-Russian stance.
Many in Russia have been dreaming about regaining the lush peninsula, which was conquered by Russia in the 18th century under Catherine the Great. Crimea only became part of Ukraine in 1954 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev handed it over from Russia to Ukraine, his native land. The move was a formality until the 1991 Soviet collapse meant Crimea landed in an independent Ukraine.
Ethnic Russians make up the majority of Crimea's population, and some, including retired navy officers and their families, have Russian citizenship. The peninsula's nearly 2 million people includes both 60 per cent Russian speakers and 12 per cent Crimean Tatars, a minority group deported and persecuted in Soviet times, leaving them with little love for Russia.
At the Ukrainian parliament in Kyiv, lawmakers delayed the formation of a new government until Thursday, reflecting the political tensions and economic challenges the country faces after Yanukovych went into hiding.
Turchinov, the parliament speaker, is now nominally in charge of this strategic country of 46 million whose ailing economy faces a possible default and whose loyalties are sharply torn between Europe and longtime ruler Russia.
Parliament on Tuesday adopted a resolution urging the International Criminal Court in The Hague to bring Yanukovych and other top Ukrainian officials to justice for the violent crackdown on protesters.
The protesters erupted after Yanukovych in November abruptly reject an agreement to strengthen ties with the European Union and instead sought a bailout loan from Moscow. But they grew into a massive movement demanding less corruption and greater human rights.
Meanwhile, the Institute of International Finance, a Washington-based association of banks and financial companies, warned that Ukraine's finances "are on the verge of collapse."
Ukraine is battling to keep its currency, the hryvnia, from collapsing. Its acting finance minister says the country needs $35 billion (25.5 billion euros) to finance government needs this year and next.
The hryvnia tumbled against the dollar Tuesday, down 6 per cent at 9.71 per dollar.
Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.
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