KIEV, Ukraine – Ukraine's acting interior minister on Wednesday ordered the disbandment of a feared riot police force that many accuse of attacks on protesters during the country's three-month political turmoil.
Arsen Avakov wrote on his Facebook page that he has signed a decree to disband the force known as Berkut and said more detail would be announced later.
Anti-government protesters have blamed Berkut for violent attacks against peaceful demonstrators protesting authorities' decision to ditch closer ties with the European Union and turn to Moscow instead. Those attacks galvanized long-brewing anger against police and the protests quickly grew into a massive movement, attracting crowds exceeding 100,000 and establishing an extensive tent camp in the capital's main downtown square.
The force, whose name means "golden eagle," consisted of about 5,000 officers. It was unclear Wednesday if its members would be dismissed or if they would be reassigned to other units.
President Viktor Yanukovych and protest leaders signed an agreement last week to end the conflict that left more than 80 people dead in just a few days in Kiev. Shortly after, Yanukovych fled the capital for his powerbase in eastern Ukraine but his exact whereabouts are unknown.
The turmoil has raised concern that Ukraine is facing a split between Russian-speaking regions, which include Yanukovych's home area in the east, and the Ukrainian-speaking west.
In Simferopol, capital of Crimea, two competing rallies were held Wednesday outside the regional parliament building, hours before legislators were to hold a session on the political crisis.
Crimea, a peninsula jutting into the Black Sea, is a strategically critical region because it is home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet.
Over 7,000 Muslim Crimean Tatars rallied in support of the new government, waving Ukrainian flags and chanting "Ukraine is not Russia" and "Allahu Akbar," while a smaller pro-Russian rally nearby called for stronger ties with Russia and waving Russian flags.
Crimean Tatars took an active part in the protest movement and harbor deep resentment against the Kremlin, having been deported en masse on the orders of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin during the World War II.
"We will not let the fate of our land to be decided without us," said Nuridin Seytablaev, 54, an 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 Russian can defend us from fascists in Kiev and from Islamic radicals in Crimea."
On Wednesday, Yanukovych's three predecessors as Ukraine's president issued a statement accusing Russia of "direct interference in the political life of Crimea."
On Tuesday, a Russian lawmaker visiting Crimea said Moscow would protect the region's Russian-speaking residents, raising concern that Russia could be trying to justify military action.