SIMFEROPOL, Crimea – Crimea held a joint funeral on Saturday, March 22, for a Ukrainian soldier and a pro-Moscow militiaman killed this week – the first casualties since Russian forces seized the Black Sea peninsula.
“These are Crimean heroes,” the Moscow-ruled region’s prime minister Sergei Aksyonov said at the funeral, where Orthodox priests prayed over the open coffins laid side by side.
“They set an example for us of how people are ready to give up their lives for Crimea to return to its historic homeland,” the separatist leader said.
“We’re proud of them.”
There were many soldiers carrying red carnations among the mourners at the Officer’s Club in the capital Simferopol, with pro-Moscow militias mingling with former Ukraine servicemen who switched to Russian allegiance.
Cossack troops could also be seen at the service and even some Russian bikers who have attended pro-Moscow rallies on the peninsula since it was overrun by Russian forces.
A Cossack hat was placed on the body of the pro-Moscow militia member, Ruslan Kazakov, while a photograph of junior officer Sergei Kokurin in his Ukrainian military uniform was displayed in front of his body.
Mikhail Sheremet, the leader of the pro-Moscow militia in Crimea, said the two men were victims of “a provocation” during a gun battle in Simferopol on Tuesday and that the deaths were still being investigated by local prosecutors.
“What kinds of emotions can one feel about death? No revolution, not even a positive one, is worth the lives of our lads,” he said.
“It’s very tragic, it’s terrifying, I have no words to express it,” said Sheremet, who himself used to serve in the Ukrainian military and referred to its soldiers as “our friends.”
Sheremet said 80% of the thousands of Ukrainian military based in Crimea before the crisis had changed allegiances to Russia.
“The rest can just go. They can get in their armoured cars or buses and leave. Nobody’s threatening them,” he said.
Manhunt for ‘sniper’
A crowd of friends and family members, including Kokurin’s pregnant widow, walked behind the coffins to music from the Ukrainian navy’s brass band, clad in uniforms with Ukrainian navy patches, before loading them onto minivans to head for the cemetery.
“We cannot say anything, because there is an investigation,” a naval officer who carried Kokurin’s portrait in the procession said.
Crimean prosecutors have said they believe the shots that killed both men during a confrontation at a Simferopol military installation on Tuesday came from the same place, and that the gunfire was aimed against both the Ukrainian military and Russian forces.
Authorities in Crimea have blamed the attack on a “sniper” from western Ukraine, but a city-wide manhunt has so far yielded no results.
An Agence France-Presse photographer that night saw a group of 10 unidentified gunmen enter the area, which was cordoned off by pro-Moscow militias, and heard a burst of automatic fire.
Ukrainian media have claimed that Kokurin was killed by automatic fire from a Kalashnikov.
Sheremet said that he was called out by militias on the ground when the shooting began.
“The tragedy happened as a result of provocateurs who were shooting in both directions,” he said after the funeral, adding: “We must not give in to provocations.” – Rappler.com