Authorities in Crimea have declared a state of emergency after anti-Russian saboteurs blew up major electrical transmission towers, cutting power to almost 2 million people amid escalating tensions around the Black Sea peninsula.
The blackout struck just after midnight on Sunday. "Crimea is completely cut off," said Viktor Plakida, the director of Crimea Energy.
Ukrainian nationalists are suspected of detonating explosives on two electricity pylons, plunging Crimea, which was annexed by Russia last year, into darkness. Photos of the damage showed the flag of Crimean Tatars attached to one of the wrecked masts.
The incident comes more than two months after exiled Crimean Tatars — an ethnic, minority group native to the region — began blocking an important trade road between Ukraine and Crimea in a protest against discrimination and continued Russian rule.
While the blockade is not officially condoned, activists have been allowed to halt trucks and other commercial traffic with relative impunity. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has shifted from a position of neutrality on the issue to offering some support for the campaign.
Former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin deported the entire population of Crimean Tatars to Central Asia in 1944, and the group's historical grievance with Russia remains strong to this day. Up to 15,000 Tatars are estimated to have left Crimea since Russia seized the peninsula from Ukraine in a mostly bloodless invasion in February and March 2014.
A pile of broken power lines near Chaplynka village of Ukraine's Kherson region. (Photo via Hromadske TV/EPA)
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe recently confirmed "numerous credible, consistent and compelling accounts of human-rights violations" amid repeated allegations that Crimean Tatars have become the target of extra-judicial arrests, disappearances, murder, and violence.
Members of Ukraine's Right Sector, an ultranationalist militia, have since joined the Tatar-led blockade, which some have feared could strangle the peninsula's economy and invite a forceful response from Moscow. Despite the Russian rule, the region still relies on Ukraine for supplies of water and electricity.
If confirmed that Ukrainian nationalists launched the attack, it is likely to further increase tensions between Russia and Ukraine at a time of escalating violence on the front line around the rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. The incident would also likely strain relations between the government in Kiev and the country's independent, and often well-armed, activist groups.
On Saturday, activists and masked, far-right paramilitary members clashed with Ukraine's national guard as officers attempted to seal the area around the downed electrical towers. Right Sector members reportedly tried to prevent repairs to the damaged pylons, which local police said had been brought down by "explosive devices."
Activists running the Crimea blockade, including members of the Right Sector's ultra-nationalistic paramilitary, clash with Ukraine's national guard as officers attempt to seal the area around the downed electrical towers on Saturday.
Russian authorities said the state of emergency in Crimea will remain until power is fully restored. A system of rolling blackouts has been imposed and people have been told not to use electrical appliances. Russia's Energy Ministry said 1,896,000 people had been left without power, while local authorities rushed to connect hospitals in the wake of the apparent sabotage attack.
The outage hit Russia's naval port of Sevastopol, which plays a key role in supporting the country's military campaign in Syria. The Black Sea Fleet was switched to a back-up power source, the city's governor said.
The bombing is the second such attack in a matter of days. Early on Friday morning, two of the four pylons connecting Crimea were brought down in similar circumstances. Last night's attack put all power lines out of use.
Watch the VICE News dispatch Right Sector Blockade: Russian Roulette:
Officials said earlier today that they had managed to partially reconnect the cities of Simferopol, Feodosia, Yevpatoria, and Yalta using mobile gas generator turbines, but these are said to be providing less than half of the peninsula's needs.
"This morning, maximum consumption in the Crimean federal district is about 800 MW [megawatts] at such air temperatures," said Sergei Yegorov, Crimea's Fuel and Energy Minister. "We have 350 MW of our own electricity generation and are short of another 450 MW."
Poroshenko met with Tatar leaders to discuss the stand-off late on Saturday. The mass power outage comes as western leaders reportedly agreed to extend sanctions against Russia for at least another six months in response to its continued military involvement in the war in Ukraine's industrial east.
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