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Ukraine crisis: Observers blocked by armed men from entering Crimea region

Published on Mar 7, 2014 10:27 PM
 
A Russian Mi24 military helicopter flies over the Russian navy minesweeper ship Turbinist in the harbour of Sevastopol, on March 7, 2014. Armed men at a checkpoint flying the Russian flag blocked Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observers from entering Ukraine's flashpoint Crimean Peninsula for a second day on Friday, an AFP reporter said. -- PHOTO: AFP

CHONGAR , Ukraine (AFP) - Armed men at a checkpoint flying the Russian flag blocked Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observers from entering Ukraine's flashpoint Crimean Peninsula for a second day on Friday, an AFP reporter said.

The team of 47 military and civilian observers from the OSCE arrived at the checkpoint near the village of Chongar around 3pm local time, but were prevented from advancing.

They were hoping to hold talks with the unidentified armed men to allow their convoy to pass, one of the observers said.

"We are just trying to go through here as guests of the Ukrainian government under an OSCE mandate," the observer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP. "We're going to try and negotiate with these people here."

The convoy of vehicles - led by a police car, followed by two buses carrying the observers and about 50 cars waving Ukrainian flags and honking their horns - had arrived from the city of Kherson where the team had spent the night.

After they were stopped, a crowd of people emerged from the cars and waved Ukrainian flags, chanting: "Crimea is Ukraine!"

"We don't want Ukraine to be split, the OSCE is able to negotiate, we want a decision to be made peacefully," said one of the demonstrators, 55-year-old Lyudmila Korbec.

There are only two main roads leading into Crimea from the rest of Ukraine, one crossing the narrow Isthmus of Perekop in the west and another eastern route on the Azov Sea.

The convoy on Friday had taken the eastern route, where the checkpoint was set up near Chongar and where AFP reporters had earlier seen about 10 armed men flagging down and checking passing vehicles, with the road partially blocked by concrete slabs.

The men wore military fatigues and balaclavas and were holding assault rifles. It was not clear whom exactly they represented but Russian flags were flying over the checkpoint.

The observers, from 25 of the organisation's 57 members, spent the night in the Ukrainian city of Kherson near Crimea after gunmen prevented them from crossing one of the roads into the peninsula.

The unarmed observer mission has been invited by Ukraine's new government and is aimed at defusing tensions in Crimea.

Russian forces have surrounded Ukrainian military bases on the peninsula and local lawmakers have decided to renounce ties with Ukraine and stage a March 16 referendum on switching over to Kremlin rule.