World Bulletin/News Desk
Bearded men in camouflage uniforms and black fur hats and armed with knives, were checking traffic on Thursday along the busy road linking Crimea's regional capital of Simferopol and the naval port of Sevastopol.
A black flag with a skull, the standard of Serbian nationalists, and a Serbian national flag fluttered in the wind alongside the Russian tricolour, bringing back images from the turbulent events of the 1990s in the Balkans.
Bratislav Zivkovic, one of the commanders of Serbia's Chetnik movement, an ultranationalist group with roots in another era, said it was only natural for them to come to Crimea to help their Russian brethren.
Crimea, part of independent post-Soviet Ukraine since 1991, has been in the grip of the Russian military for a week. Its local assembly has declared that the region wants to become part of Russia, subject to a referendum scheduled for Sunday.
Zivkovic's group of five activists have been tasked with manning patrols alongside Cossacks, most of whom have journeyed to the peninsula from Russia in anticipation of the referendum.
"Our motive was to offer moral support to the Russian people of the Crimea and their right for a referendum and nothing more than that," said Zivkovic. "Through the centuries, Russians were helping us, they were giving us support, even now in Kosovo, so we came here to support them."
Russia is Serbia's traditional ally as the two nations share the same Slav origins, Orthodox Christian faith and similar languages. Serbia is also heavily dependent on Russia's energy and the cash-strapped government in Belgrade has turned to Kremlin to underpin its budget.
The Serbian Chetniks draw their name and traditions from insurgents who fought Ottoman Turks in 19th and early 20th centuries. They gained notoriety in the 1990s, when their units committed atrocities against non-Serbs in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, a former Serbian province dominated by ethnic Albanians which won independence in 2008.
Roadblocks were erected along key roads in Crimea last week when men in green uniforms, bearing no national insignia, appeared outside Ukrainian bases, taking control of naval and military installations in the peninsula.
SERBS, COSSACKS ON PATROL
The checkpoint manned by Zivkovic's men was also controlled by masked men in camouflage fatigues armed with shotguns, who described themselves as Cossacks. A group of policemen in Ukrainian uniforms, all carrying machine guns, stood aside, ceding control to the Serbian volunteers and Cossacks.
Zivkovic said his men were willing to fight to ensure the peninsula's ethnic Russian majority won the right to secede and join Russia. But they were there, he said, to prevent violence.
"Every possible incident that might occur will be extinguished swiftly," he said. "We are hoping that even if it comes to fighting and armed conflict, it will be very short, because the population is Russian and the peninsula is Russian."
As the queue of cars and trucks approaching the checkpoint lengthened, one middle-aged truck driver, who identified himself only as Oleg, said he was gratified by Serbian solidarity.
"This is great. They are helping the guys," he said. "This is how it should be. We have to help each other."
Others were angry.
"Who are they helping? I don't understand that. I don't need any help, no one is bothering me here," said Denis, a driver from Simferopol.
"The (Serbs) are occupiers, genuine occupiers. I have no other names for them," said Asan, another driver.
Police say both suspects, who resided in Spanish cities of Valladolid and Murcia, were radicalized online
24 journalists stage strike to coincide with Palestinian Journalists Day
Over 99 percent of voters back Jan. 9 as Republika Srpska 'Statehood Day', fuelling fears of independence push from Bosnia
Council official calls for holding ‘consultations’ with view to appointing new heads of top state institutions
A measure making it more difficult for foreign workers to be employed won 58 percent of the vote in a referendum on Sunday in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, which borders Italy.
"Previous statements delivered by his adviser on Israel show a total abandonment of the two-state solution, international law and UN resolutions."
In northern Iraq, meanwhile, army braces for decisive push on ISIL-held city of Mosul
Government troops intensify operations to clear Boko Haram from northeastern Borno state
Congolese security forces battle unidentified militant group in Kasai-Central province
Hollande's visit comes just days after one by his conservative predecessor Sarkozy -- who is hoping to make a comeback as president, with a harsh line on migration a key part of his campaign.
Critics of the referendum have said that it is stoking ethnic tension and is bolstering separatist sentiment within the Bosnian Serb ministate
Hundreds of people in central Mudug region call on Indian government to release 119 Somalis accused of being pirates
Authorities in Azerbaijan are holding a referendum on September 26 over changes to the country's constitution
Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday.
"What Russia is sponsoring and doing is not counter-terrorism, it is barbarism," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, told the 15-member council.
Bosnian Serbs have voted to maintain a Statehood Day holiday on January 9 in a controversial referendum held in defiance of a high-court ruling from Sarajevo.