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Rival groups clash in Ukraine’s Crimea, 20 injured

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Pro-Russian protesters gathered in front of city hall in the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Sevastopol in the Crimea, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has strongly condemned the new authorities, saying Monday they came to power as a result of an “armed mutiny” and their legitimacy is causing “big doubts.” Tensions, meanwhile, have been mounting in Crimea in southern Ukraine. Russia maintains a large naval base in Sevastopol that has strained relations between the countries for two decades. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

Pro-Russian protesters gathered in front of city hall in the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Sevastopol in the Crimea, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has strongly condemned the new authorities, saying Monday they came to power as a result of an “armed mutiny” and their legitimacy is causing “big doubts.” Tensions, meanwhile, have been mounting in Crimea in southern Ukraine. Russia maintains a large naval base in Sevastopol that has strained relations between the countries for two decades. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

Pro-Russian protesters gather in front of a local government building in Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has strongly condemned the new authorities, saying Monday they came to power as a result of an “armed mutiny” and their legitimacy is causing “big doubts.” Tensions, meanwhile, have been mounting in Crimea in southern Ukraine. Russia maintains a large naval base in Sevastopol that has strained relations between the countries for two decades. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

Pro-Russian protesters gather in front of a local government building in Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has strongly condemned the new authorities, saying Monday they came to power as a result of an “armed mutiny” and their legitimacy is causing “big doubts.” Tensions, meanwhile, have been mounting in Crimea in southern Ukraine. Russia maintains a large naval base in Sevastopol that has strained relations between the countries for two decades. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

New mayor of the city of Sevastopol Alexey Chaly, center, speaks to a crowd during a rally in Sevastopol, Ukraine, on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014. After the head of the Sevastopol City Council stepped down, a rally in Sevastopol named local businessman and Russian citizen Alexei Chalyi as the new city mayor, but he has also kept a low profile. A Russian flag was flying in front of the city council building in Sevastopol, a key port in Crimea, a pro-Russian region in Ukraine nearly surrounded by the Black Sea. Protesters had torn down the Ukrainian flag a few days ago, pleading with Moscow to protect them from the new authorities in Ukraine. (AP Photo/Andrew Lubimov)

People light cantles and place flowers at a memorial for the people killed in clashes with the police at Kiev’s Independence Square, the epicenter of the country’s current unrest, Ukraine, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014. Parliament speaker says that a new government should be in place by Thursday, a delay reflecting intense ongoing consultations. Oleksandr Turchinov has previously said the new government could be formed on Tuesday. Turchinov was named Ukraine’s interim leader after President Viktor Yanukovych fled the capital after signing a peace deal with opposition leaders to end violent clashes between police and protesters and Kiev. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

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SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (AP) — Fistfights broke out between pro- and anti-Russian demonstrators in Ukraine’s strategic Crimea region on Wednesday as Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered massive military exercises just across the border.

The tests of military readiness involve most of the military units in central and western Russia, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in a televised statement. He said the exercise would “check the troops’ readiness for action in crisis situations that threaten the nation’s military security.”

He did not specifically mention the turmoil in Ukraine, which is bitterly divided between pro-European western regions and pro-Russian areas in the east and south.

Three months of protests forced pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovytch to go into hiding over the weekend as his foes set up an interim government following violent clashes between protesters and police that left more than 80 people dead.

In Crimea’s regional capital of Simferopol, about 20,000 Muslim Tatars who rallied in support of the interim government clashed with a smaller pro-Russian rally. A health official said that at least 20 people have been injured.

The protesters shouted and attacked each other with stones, bottles and punches, as police and leaders of both rallies struggled to keep the two groups apart.

The tensions in Crimea — a peninsula in southern Ukraine that is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet — highlight the divisions that run through this country of 46 million, and underscore fears that the country’s mainly Russian-speaking east and south will not recognize the interim authorities’ legitimacy.

Crimean Tatars are a Turkic Muslim ethnic group who have lived in Crimea for centuries. They were brutally deported in 1944 by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin but returned after Ukraine’s independence.

“We will not let the fate of our land be decided without us,” said Nuridin Seytablaev, a 54-year-old engineer. “We are ready to fight for Ukraine and our European future.”

Nearby, separated by police lines, Anton Lyakhov, 52, waved a Russian flag. “Only Russia can defend us from fascists in Kiev and from Islamic radicals in Crimea,” he said.

According to the Russian defense minister, the military will be on high alert for two days as some troops deploy to shooting ranges. The actual maneuvers will start Friday and will last four days, he said. The exercise will involve ships of the Baltic and the Northern Fleets and the air force.

The order came a day after a Russian lawmaker visiting Crimea said Moscow would protect the region’s Russian-speaking residents, raising concerns that Russia might make a military move into Ukraine.

On Wednesday, Yanukovych’s three predecessors as president issued a statement accusing Russia of “direct interference in the political

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