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Pro-Russian protesters hold Crimean parliament under siege in backlash against new government

February 27, 2014 at 6:08 PM EST
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GWEN IFILL: In Ukraine, a crisis is unfolding in the eastern province of Crimea.

Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News reports from Simferopol, the capital of the pro-Russian region.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Police were on guard outside the Crimean regional parliament this morning, the entrance barricaded by old furniture and pallets, the Russian flag flying alongside the Crimean on top, and inside the building, some 60 armed men.

MAN (through interpreter): Nobody knows what’s going on inside now. We just saw the building being taken over; 30 fully armed guys went inside. They kicked out the police. Then more buses came and about 30 more guys arrived. They had bags full of RPGs, sniper rifles, Kalashnikovs, handguns. These guys were fully armed.

LINDSEY HILSUM: The crowd was all in favor. They said they didn’t know exactly who would occupy the building, but they all wanted the same thing, a referendum on whether Crimea should remain part of Ukraine or, as they all want, join Russia.

In Kiev, parliamentarians responded angrily. It’s a challenge to the new government’s control.

OLEKSANDR TURCHYNOV, Acting President, Ukraine: Anyone who tries to — and I stress anyone — to take over the government buildings in Ukraine’s east, west, center, south, and north is going to be treated as having committed a crime against the government of Ukraine.

LINDSEY HILSUM: So what are they going to do about it?

The people occupying the Crimean parliament are armed. And those outside, including the police, are sympathetic. So it’s hard to see how the authorities in Kiev can force an end to the siege. They will have to negotiate. And that gives leverage, not just to the militant Russian Crimeans, but to the only man they respect, President Putin.

This morning, Russian armored vehicles headed towards Simferopol. President Putin may be insuring that everyone remembers that the Russian military has bases here. They turned around at a Ukrainian police checkpoint. In Simferopol, a group of men were building a camp outside the headquarters of the Berkut, the riot police. They want to protect them from the new authorities.

The two courses have become entwined. These men love Russia, and they see the Berkut, accused of murdering protesters if Kiev, as their heroes. A small group of pro-Russia, pro-Berkut protesters marched through the streets, yelling their message that they don’t accept the authority of Kiev and its European Union backers. People milled around, as deputies inside the occupied parliament voted in favor of the referendum on whether the Crimea should join Russia.

Kiev may declare such a vote illegal, but it’s not clear how they’re going to stop it.