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By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
KYIV, UKRAINE (BosNewsLife)– Ukrainian Christians gathered for prayers as pro-Russian activists attacked a pro-Kyiv rally on Ukraine’s disputed Crimea’s peninsula with clubs and whips on Sunday, March 9, while thousands took to the streets across Ukraine in rival demonstrations. The protests came while Interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk vowed Ukraine would not cede “an inch” of its territory to Moscow.
Yatsenyuk was reportedly to visit Washington for consultation, after pro-Russian forces prevented more than 40 international observers from entering Crimea, after taking control over military bases across the area.
“Our country and our people are facing the biggest challenges in the history of modern independent Ukraine,” he said. “Will we be able to deal with these challenges? There should only be one answer to this question and that is: yes.”
However the international community appeared unable to halt the Russian military movements with observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) facing warning shots, explained Hungarian Gábor Ács,
who heads the mission.
“We tried for the fourth time to enter the Crimean Peninsula. Unfortunately it was again unsuccessful. At this moment they were much more angry than the previous time especially towards the Ukrainian escort,” he said.
The incident underscored international concerns over what Ukraine’s interim government has called a Russian armed invasion with as many as 30,000 Russian forces effectively controlling the region.
Elsewhere fighting broke out between different groups, adding to fears the tensions in Crimea may turn into a wider civil conflict.
U.S. President Barack Obama, who discussed the situation with leaders from Britain, France, Italy and the Baltic states said in a statement he agrees with European leaders that Russia must pull back its forces from Crimea.
He also urged Russia to allow international monitors as well as human rights observers to work there and to support fair presidential elections in May.
At Washington Brookings Institution, non-proliferation scholar Steven Pifer warned the crisis urgently needs to be de-escalated. “Russia and Ukraine right now are one nervous 20-year-old soldier’s mistake away from something very very bad happening that could spin out of control,” he claimed.
There seems little time left as already troops, believed to be Russian, drove a truck into a missile defence post in Sevastopol the home of both their Black Sea Fleet and the Ukrainian navy.
And, Ukraine’s border service has said that Russian troops also seized a border guard outpost in the east of the peninsula, after surrounding several bases across Crimea.
The military movements come ahead of a March 16 referendum in Crimea on whether to join Russia.
Yet speaking through an interpreter, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied Moscow was involved in the domestic affairs of Crimea, where a referendum on joining Russia will be held next week.
“This conflict is of an inner Ukrainian nature inspired from outside and not from our side. The country’s temporary government… is not independent. Unfortunately it depends on radical nationalists who took power in an armed coup.
His boss, Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly defended the separatist drive in the disputed Crimean Peninsula as “in keeping with international law”.
Amid the tensions, tens of thousands of Ukrainians of all backgrounds gathered in the Kyiv’s Independence Square for a multi-faith prayer meeting to display unity and honor the 200th anniversary of the birth of its greatest poet, Taras Shevchenko.
Former jailed Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, almost burst into tears as he asked the crowd to believe not all Russians support their country’s recent actions in Ukraine.
“I want you to know there is a completely different Russia,” Khodorkovsky said.
He spoke while Russian tightened their grip on Crimea, a part of Ukraine since 1954. In Simferopol, a military ceremony was held, creating what’s described as a Crimean defence force.
Some 30 uniformed and armed men were presented as the “First Division” at the event – attended by Crimea’s self-proclaimed prime minister.
“Russians are our brothers,” Crimean Parliament speaker Vladimir Konstantinov said at a gathering. He asked the crowd how it would vote in the upcoming referendum. “Russia! Russia!” the crowd answered loudly.
Central and Eastern European countries near Ukraine have expressed concern that the crisis could impact them after Russia warned the interim Ukrainian government of another possible shutdown over unpaid gas bills.
The same pipelines that bring Russian gas to Ukraine also supplies eastern Europe, creating shortages there.
The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia have urged the U.S. to make it easier for them to import American natural gas, to reduce their reliance on Russia, their former Soviet master.