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Ukraine Conflicts Escalate as Crimea Referendum Looms

Crimea will vote on whether it wants to join Russia on Sunday. Tensions are ratcheting up both on the streets and in diplomatic circles.
Photo by Robert King

The tensions in Ukraine are showing no signs of cooling off. Protests on the streets are turning deadly and both official statements and military maneuvers are growing more threatening.

Three people were reportedly killed on Thursday in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, where a large crowd of pro-Russia demonstrators attacked a small group of pro-unity residents calling for peace.

Dmitriy Chernyavskiy, 22, a spokesman for the pro-unity party Svoboda (Freedom), died when he was stabbed in the abdomen during the attack, in which a couple of thousand pro-Russian demonstrators hurled bricks, fireworks, and batons at a few hundred peaceful protesters calling for Ukrainian unity.

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VICE News correspondent Robert King captured images of Chernyavskiy just after he was stabbed. The young man can be seen being dragged away by Ukrainian security forces, who attempted to protect the small group of protesters in vain.

A leader in the Svoboda party told VICE News: "The people with the Ukrainian flags, the flags of this state, came to the central square of Donetsk and they were beaten and killed. They do not want to live in Russia. They want to live in their native state of Ukraine. Is it democracy? I do not think so and I can not imagine this situation in Canada, in Italy, or in the United States, but we can see this situation in Ukraine today."

Watch VICE News reporter Robert King’s latest dispatch from Donetsk.

On Friday, people took to Lenin Square to lay down flowers for the victims of the attack, and more protests are planned for after Chernyavskiy’s funeral on Saturday.

“Pro-Ukrainian supporters are very passive, they weren’t doing anything last night to instigate such violence other than saying ‘be united, ‘we’re Ukrainians,’” King said. “Most likely we’ll see the same thing that happened in Crimea will happen in Donetsk.”

“The Ukrainians are like, the violinists, the art students being beaten up by the thugs, by the schoolyard bullies,” King added.

Meanwhile in Crimea, where most demonstrations so far have been in favor of annexation to Russia, groups of pro-unity protesters have now started taking to the streets. A referendum on the future of the peninsula will take place there on Sunday. Thousands of residents have fled to mainland Ukraine and those that are staying are preparing for a change of flag.

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“I know that this action is maybe one of the last options to express my opinion,” protester Irina Antonovskaya told VICE News at a recent pro-Ukraine rally in Simferopol. “Because in a few days this territory may come to Russia and this will be illegal.”

Ukrainians in Crimea do not only fear losing their right to protest. Long lines have reportedly formed at local banks, as residents try to take out cash in anticipation of the region switching currency to the Russian ruble next week.

Get your cash while you can! Folks flocking to banks around Simferopol. — Dan Peleschuk (@dpeleschuk)March 14, 2014

Some ethnic Russians were also among those protesting annexation.

“Crimea will not gain anything by joining Russia. No one is thinking about the repercussions,” Andrey Yegorov, an ethnic Russian told VICE News at a pro-Kiev demonstration. “We are all afraid of the war. ”

“The referendum will not be legitimate, bandits have taken over Crimea,” another protester told VICE News.

But the protesters chanting “Ukraine” were met by pro-Russian Cossacks and civilian “volunteer” patrols, as well as large groups of pro-Russia demonstrators.

“What do we see as a result of maidan?” Anastasia Saltykova told VICE News at a pro-Russia rally. “Devastation. It is sad to look at Kiev right now.”

Watch VICE News reporter Simon Ostrovsky’s latest dispatch from Crimea.

Things didn’t look any prettier on the diplomatic level.

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On Friday, Russia shipped additional troops and armor into Crimea, while reiterating that it might invade other regions beyond the peninsula, where a referendum for secession is planned for this weekend.

Some suggested that process might have already started, as Russia was reportedly moving its artillery from Crimea to mainland Ukraine.

This military maneuvering did not please western governments, who have been nervously watching the escalation of conflict in Ukraine.

The harshest words came from German chancellor Angela Merkel.

“If Russia continues on its course of the past weeks, it will not only be a catastrophe for Ukraine,” Merkel said on Thursday. “We, also as neighbors of Russia, would not only see it as a threat. And it would not only change the European Union’s relationship with Russia. No, this would also cause massive damage to Russia, economically and politically.”

Criticism also came from US officials. The US had planned joint military exercises with Bulgaria and Romania close to Crimea, on the western coast of the Black Sea, but those have been postponed due to weather conditions.

“What we would like to see is a commitment to stop putting new facts on the ground and a commitment to engage seriously on ways to de-escalate the conflict,” a US State Department official said in a statement ahead of a meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, scheduled for Friday.

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The Russian Foreign Ministry, for its part, repeated President Vladimir Putin's declaration of the right to invade to protect Russian citizens and "compatriots."

Meanwhile the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic said at a Friday press conference in Kiev that the agency is seriously “concerned” about the lack of rule of law and the protection of human rights in Crimea.

The international observers were not able to enter the peninsula.

“We were not able to go to Simferopol," Simonovic said, "the authorities there informed us that they would not receive the mission nor ensure its security.” However, he added that teams of international observers will be immediately deployed throughout the country — including in Crimea.

That’s relatively good news, but it’s also a reminder that things in Ukraine could be about to get much worse. And Ukrainians are bracing up.

“I don’t want any young men to die from either side,” Bohdan Leskiv, an elderly Simferopol resident, told VICE News. “I am afraid of a massacre.”

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi