Dozens of Muslim gravestones defaced in Ukraine's Crimea region

Other News Materials 11 April 2008 16:38 (UTC +04:00)

(dpa) - Vandals defaced dozens of Muslim gravestones in Ukraine's multi-ethnic Crimea province, police said Friday.

The nighttime attack took place in a cemetery outside the village of Chistenko, near the centre of the Black Sea peninsula.

Sunni Tartars visiting the cemetery on Friday for religious reasons found more than 40 gravestones defaced or knocked down.

Fresh grafitti on the walls of the cemetery read in Russian, "Tartars, leave Crimea now!"

Other drawings showed gibbets, and the Tartar national symbol with the letter X marked through it.

"We are discovering more and more damaged headstones as our search continues," said Lilia Muslimova, a Tartar community spokeswoman. "We find this highly troubling."

More than 300 people including local villagers and law enforcers were in the cemetery on Friday afternoon. No incidents of violence had been reported.

Tensions between Crimea's ethnic Tartars following Islam's Sunni faith and ethnic Russians and Ukrainians following the Orthodox Christian faith had been running high in recent weeks, because of police efforts to force Tartar squatters off land wanted by developers.

Anti-Tartar vandals in February defaced more than 200 gravestones in another Muslim cemetery a few dozen kilometres away. Police eventually blamed local school children.

Hate crime is a serious offence in Ukraine, but it is rarely prosecuted.

Crimea's police force is overwhelmingly Christian and Slavic. Tartar activists have accused police officers of anti-Islamic bias.

Tartar-Slav conflict in recent years has produced massed fist fights, and even murders. Ukraine's government has however been slow to acknowledge the tensions.

Soviet dictator Josef Stalin exiled all Tartars from Crimea in 1944, because of alleged collaboration with German invaders during the Second World War.

Tartars had settled in Crimea some 700 years previously, a half- millenium before Slavic colonization.

When Ukraine became independent in 1991, the former Soviet republic's new government opened Crimea to Tartar return, without determining what land the Tartars should settle on.

In most cases, the Tartars wound up in sustenance farming villages located on the arid peninsula's worst land.