Pro-Russian groups have attacked a pro-Kiev rally in the troubled Ukrainian region of Crimea as thousands took to the streets across Ukraine in rival demonstrations, escalating separatist tensions in the ex-Soviet state.
Violence flared In Sevastopol when pro-Russian groups attacked a small group of Ukrainians commemorating the 200th anniversary of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko’s birth and the police had to intervene, according to Reuters news agency.
Footage from the event showed a group of men violently kicking one of the Ukrainians as he lay on the ground and a man repeatedly hitting him with a long black leather whip, the agency said.
The political tensions in Crimea follows overthrow of pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovich and the seizure of the peninsula by unidentified pro-Russian gunmen. The standoff has set Europe and the United States against Russia over Ukraine's future in the worst East-West confrontation since the Cold War.
Pro- and anti-Russian groups held rival rallies in Simferopol as well.
Several hundred opponents of Russian-backed plans for Crimea to secede gathered, carrying blue and yellow balloons the colour of the Ukrainian flag. The crowd sang the national anthem, twice, and an Orthodox Priest led prayers and a hymn.
Around 2,000 Russian supporters gathered in Lenin Square, where there is a statue of the Soviet state founder, clapping along to nostalgic Soviet era songs being sung from the stage, Reuters said.
Pro-Russia rally in Donetsk
In the eastern Crimean city of Donetsk pro-Moscow activists paid tribute to a feared riot police unit accused of shooting at protesters in clashes in Kiev that left around 100 dead late last month, according the AFP news agency.
"Russia! Russia!" the activists waving Russian flags shouted in Donetsk, the heartland of the former president.
Illustrating the divisions in Ukraine, interim President Oleksandr Turchynov led a minute of silence at a rally in Kiev for demonstrators killed in three months of protests that led to the removal of Yanukovich.
Interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has recently vowed Ukraine would not cede "an inch" of its territory to Moscow.
On Saturday, warning shots prevented international observers from entering Crimea. The pro-Russian Crimean authorities, who voted to join Russia on Thursday, say they have not given them permission to enter the region.
Russia says its only troops in Crimea are those normally stationed there with its Black Sea Fleet in line with a bilateral agreement, an assertion Washington calls "[President Vladimir] Putin's fiction". Kiev says there are 30,000 Russians in Crimea while the US Department of Defense estimates their number at around 20,000.