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Published: Saturday March 15, 2014 MYT 11:10:01 PM
Updated: Saturday March 15, 2014 MYT 11:10:52 PM

Tatar leader mistrusts Russia, fears new troubles in Crimea

KIEV (Reuters) - Crimean Tatars, deported en masse by Soviet authorities 70 years ago, fear new repression if Russia's military takeover of the Crimean peninsula leads to formal political control, the Muslim community's most senior figure said on Saturday.

Mustafa Dzhemilev, in an interview, denounced Sunday's referendum in the peninsula on whether to join Russia as a "desecration of elementary logic and democratic principles". He restated his community's intention to shun polling stations.

Dzhemilev, 70, said Crimean Tatars, the peninsula's indigenous residents who have firmly backed the post-Soviet Ukrainian state, mistrusted promises of benefits made by Crimea's new pro-Moscow leaders.

The Tatars, he said, feared they would be the target of new attacks and even a new mass deportation.

"We Crimean Tatars believe that we are the ones who will suffer most," Dzhemilev, former head of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, its top body of representatives, told Reuters in a Kiev hotel next to parliament.

"Crimean Tatars systematically supported Ukraine's territorial integrity and spoke out against pro-Russian separatism, so in these conditions we will probably be the main target... if Crimea becomes a part of Russia.

"Opinions are being expressed among Crimean Tatars that a new deportation is possible. There is a feeling that we have fought to return to our homeland for 50 years and it would be better to die here rather than undergo a new deportation."

Violence between Crimea's majority ethnic Russians and Muslim Tatars, he said, was possible.

"This cannot be ruled out. We are getting information that bandit groups known as self-defence units are behaving in a very brazen fashion...They are so far not hurting Crimean Tatars, but if clashes do take place it will be difficult to stop this later."

Crimean Tatars once made up more than a third of the Black Sea peninsula's population, but now account for 12 percent of two million residents.

Soviet dictator Josef Stalin deported the entire Tatar community - nearly 200,000 people - to Soviet Central Asia in cattle trains in May 1944 in reprisal for alleged collaboration with Nazi occupiers earlier in World War Two.

They began to trickle back in the mid-1980s as Mikhail Gorbachev's "perestroika" reforms took hold. Part of Soviet Ukraine since 1954, Crimea reverted to Kiev with the collapse of Soviet rule, but Tatars encountered difficulties reclaiming houses and land with the region's ethnic Russian majority.

SCEPTICISM AND MISTRUST

Dzhemilev, diminutive and soft-spoken, said pro-Russian forces now in control in Crimea's capital Simferopol, were "playing a game with us". He said he had little faith in promises to provide jobs in public institutions, expand Tatar language rights and solve land disputes.

"They are promising to do everything that we have been unable to accomplish over the past 20 years in Crimea," he said.

"But believing promises from people who only yesterday carried out ethnic cleansing and bandit attacks on Crimean Tatar villages and who have become so nice overnight - this all generates scepticism and mistrust."

He also acknowledged that there were proponents of a "non-traditional Muslim outlook in Crimea" - a reference to small groups advocating a stricter approach to Islam.

But he said Russian military action had united Tatars, notwithstanding attempts by Moscow's security services to exploit differences.

"Despite expectations that recent events would divide the community, there has been in fact a consolidation," he said. "Even those radical groups who back a non-traditional form of Islam say perhaps we will do away with all our differences and place the liberation of our territory in the forefront."

Dzhemilev, still a member of Ukraine's parliament, said Russian President Vladimir Putin had asked him in a telephone conversation this week that Crimean Tatars remain neutral in the referendum. The Kremlin leader, he said, had also expressed fears about "provocations" involving the community.

"I said we were not the sort of force that might declare war on Russia and wage that war successfully. There are very few of us and we are unarmed," he said.

"It is also in our interest that there be no provocations but it's not really up to us. When your homeland is occupied by foreign soldiers, it is hard to expect people to remain calm."

(Editing by Rosalind Russell) nL3N0MC08S

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