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Pro-Russian rally in Crimea decries Kiev ‘bandits’

SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine (AP) — Dozens of pro-Russian protesters rallied Tuesday in the Crimean Peninsula against “the bandits” in Kiev who are trying to form a new government, with some even speaking of secession, and a Russian lawmaker stoked their passions by promising that Moscow will protect them.

“Russia, save us!” some chanted.

An armored personnel carrier and two trucks full of Russian troops made a rare appearance on the streets of the port city where the Kremlin’s Black Sea Fleet is based. A Russian flag fluttered in front of the city council building, replacing the Ukrainian flag that demonstrators had torn down a day earlier.

The protesters pleaded with Moscow to protect them from the new authorities who forced President Viktor Yanukovych to flee the capital and go into hiding.

“Bandits have come to power,” said Vyacheslav Tokarev, a 39-year-old construction worker. “I’m ready to take arms to fight the fascists who have seized power in Kiev.”

Yanukovych was reportedly last seen in the Crimea, a staunchly pro-Russian region the size of Massachusetts. Law enforcement agencies have issued an arrest warrant for him over the killing of 82 people, mainly protesters, last week in the bloodiest violence in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history.

His former chief of staff, Andriy Klyuyev, was wounded by gunfire Monday and hospitalized, spokesman Artem Petrenko told the Associated Press. It wasn’t clear where in Ukraine the shooting took place.

The protesters gathered for a third day in front of administrative buildings in Sevastopol and in other Crimean cities in the pro-Moscow region in the southern Ukraine. Protests on Sunday numbered in the thousands.

“We won’t allow them to wipe their feet on us,” said Anatoly Mareta, wearing the colors of the Russian flag on his arm. “Only Russia will be able to protect the Crimea.”

“I hope for the Ossetian way,” he added — a reference to the brief but fierce 2008 war in which Russian tanks and troops helped Georgia’s separatist provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to break free. Russia has recognized both as independence states, but few other nations have.

Russia, which has thousands of Black Sea Fleet seamen at its base, 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 the population in Crimea and the supporters of the new authorities.

The open movement of Russian military vehicles — normally avoided in Sevastopol at Ukraine’s request — was seen as a reflection of the tensions in the city.

A senior Russian lawmaker promised protesters that his government will protect its Russian-speaking compatriots in the southern and eastern parts of Ukraine that tilt heavily toward Moscow.

“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.

Slutsky’s statements followed more cautious remarks by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who said that Moscow has no intention of interfering in Ukraine’s domestic affairs but also warned the West against trying to turn the situation there to its advantage.

Lavrov also criticized the new authorities who assumed control after Yanukovych fled, accusing them of failure to rein in radical groups.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in Washington that their countries oppose any attempt to partition or divide the former Soviet republic into pro-Western and pro-Russian territories.

Ukraine’s interim leader, Oleksandr Turchinov, met with top security officials Tuesday to discuss the tensions in Crimea and elsewhere.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also summoned his top security officials Tuesday to discuss Ukraine, but no details were released.

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