Ukraine began mobilizing its new National Guard on Friday as tension over the fate of Crimea heightened. Street violence flared again and Russia warned that it "reserves the right to take people under its protection."
More than 600 men and women turned up near the city's Independence Square on Friday morning to volunteer for the force, which was formally created by parliament on Thursday. With fists pumping in the air and many making the 'V' for victory sign, the recruits boarded buses and headed off to a military base about 50 kilometres away for two weeks of training. Most were already wearing military-type uniforms, which they had bought at local stores.
"We want to go to Crimea and keep our territory all Ukraine. If Russians want to get our territory, we're going to fight," said one volunteer Max Mazur.
"They want to take part of our country," added another volunteer who did not give his name. "We want a mobilization to fight for our country."
The new force comes as more than 8,000 Russian troops began training exercises along the border with Ukraine. Hundreds of soldiers without insignias, believed to be Russians, have also surrounded Ukrainian military bases in Crimea, which is holding a referendum Sunday on whether to join Russia. The Ukrainian government and Western leaders have said the referendum is illegal and they will not recognize the outcome, which is widely expected to be an overwhelming endorsement of seccession.
In the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, the centre of deposed President Viktor Yanukovych's power base, about 2,000 pro-Russian demonstrators clashed with a similar number of supporters of Ukraine's new government on Thursday night. A pro-Ukrainian demonstrator was stabbed to death and 17 people were injured, the regional government said in a statement on its website, asking Putin "not to start a war on the territory of Ukraine."
Russia said on Friday that the street violence showed the Ukrainian authorities had lost control and that Moscow reserved the right to protect compatriots there.
"Russia is aware of its responsibility for the lives of compatriots and fellow citizens in Ukraine and reserves the right to take people under its protection," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in London on Friday to try to find a diplomatic solution. However, both sides appear far apart and tensions are rising in other parts of Eastern Ukraine which, like Crimea, have large Russian-speaking populations.
The Ukrainian government created the National Guard after acknowledging the woeful state of its military which only has about 6,000 combat-ready troops and is running low on many key supplies including fuel. Initially, the government suggested the National Guard would include around 20,000 volunteers, but that figure jumped to 60,000 this week. And it could go higher if needed, the government has indicated.
Just what the National Guard will do has yet to be finalized. There are plans to incorporate some of the volunteers into military units and others could be sent home for call up later.
"I presume they will be paid in the future but now they are volunteering, but they are getting food and all the equipment," said Yarema Dukh, a spokesman for the national security council. "The law was proclaimed just yesterday and they are [working out] all the things about how it will be working in the future…Everything is changing rapidly and nobody can presume what is going to happen."
There have been calls to go beyond the National Guard and arm much of the population as a way of fending off a possible Russian invasion. "We are facing a very dire and serious situation," said Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the opposition party Svoboda which plans to propose a law to arm all properly-trained civilians. "I'm convinced that this law should have been passed a long time ago."
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