A rally to protest at Russia's intervention in the Ukraine has taken place in Moscow. It comes as Russia vetoes a UN Security Council resolution condemning an impending referendum on whether Crimea should join Russia.
As many as 50,000 people took part in Saturday's "march for peace" in the Russian capital, Moscow, organizers said.
Demonstrators bearing both Russian and Ukrainian flags urged President Vladimir Putin to withdraw troops currently occupying Crimea, comparing the situation with the Nazi annexation of the Sudetenland region ahead of World War II.
After the march, the protesters gathered on Prospekt Sakharova, the site of huge anti-Putin rallies in 2011-12.
Russian police, who regularly downplay the size of opposition demonstrations, earlier estimated the number of marchers at 3,000. A rival pro-Putin demonstration near the Kremlin attracted some 15,000 people, police said.
Many of the protesters at the Moscow peace rally used the same chants and slogans employed during recent Ukrainian anti-government protests that led to the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych last month.
Security Council veto
Meanwhile, Russia has vetoed a United States-sponsored resolution at the United Nations Security Council which condemned Sunday's planned Crimea referendum and declared it invalid.
Permanent Security Council member Russia exercised its veto power during the emergency vote Saturday. China abstained from the vote, which won the approval of 13 of the council's 15 members.
"Russia, isolated, alone and wrong, blocked the resolution's passage," United States ambassador Samantha Power told the council following the vote.
Moscow land grab?
Just days after Yanukovych fled Kyiv, thousands of pro-Russian gunmen took control of Crimea, home to Russia's Black Sea fleet. A newly appointed pro-Kremlin government there then declared it would leave Ukraine, setting a referendum on the issue for Sunday.
Moscow says the referendum is a legitimate chance for the largely Russian-speaking peninsula to determine its own future, while Ukraine and its Western allies say the vote is a cover for an illegal annexation by the Kremlin.
The United States and the European Union have threatened sanctions against Moscow if the vote in Crimea goes ahead. Talks in London on Friday between US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov failed to bridge differences on the issue.
Fears that Moscow's military intervention in Crimea and Sunday's referendum could cause upheaval in Ukraine's Russia-leaning eastern regions were fuelled overnight when two people died in clashes between pro-Kyiv and pro-Moscow activists in the city of Kharkiv.
And in a further incident likely to raise tensions in the region, Ukrainian officials say Russian troops backed by helicopter gunships and armored vehicles have seized a village, Strilkove, near the border with Crimea. The bloodless action appears to be the first move undertaken by Russia in Ukraine outside of Crimea.
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry condemned the alleged seizure of Strilkove, saying Ukraine reserved "the right to use all necessary measures to stop the military invasion by Russia."
It said the Russian force consisted of some 80 personnel, though other reports spoke of as many as 120.
Crimea’s pro-Kremlin administration, which is not recognized by the government in Kyiv, later released a statement saying the troops that had seized the village were a Crimean "self-defence force."
It said they were there to protect a natural gas pumping station that had allegedly been attacked by a group of Ukrainian nationalists.
tj/se (AFP, AP)
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