Rival groups clash in Ukraine’s Crimea

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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.

In Crimea’s regional capital of Simferopol, more than 10,000 Muslim Tatars rallied in support of the interim government. Waving Ukrainian flags, they chanted “Ukraine is not Russia!”

That group clashed with a smaller pro-Russian rally nearby in which participants waved Russian flags. Protesters shouted and punched one another, as police and leaders of both rallies struggled to keep the two groups apart.

The pro-Russian group swelled to about 5,000 later Wednesday as more protesters arrived on buses from the port city of Sevastopol. Some pro-Russian protesters took a Ukrainian flag from the Tatar demonstrators and tore it to pieces, ignoring calls for calm from leaders of both rallies.

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 took an active part in the protest movement against Yanukovych and harbor deep resentment toward the Kremlin, having been deported en masse on the orders of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin during World War II.

“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

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