KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Several hundred people marched in Ukraine's capital Sunday to commemorate the brutal deportation 70 years ago of Crimea's entire population of Tatars, while about 20,000 members of the ethnic group rallied in the peninsula's main city.
In both cities, the gatherings were also a protest against Russia's annexation of Crimea, which re-opened old wounds for the Crimean Tatars and raised fears of renewed discrimination under Moscow's rule.
The new Kremlin-backed leaders of Crimea had refused to allow the Tatars to hold their rally on a central square, so they gathered instead near a mosque on the outskirts. The Interfax Ukraine news agency said the crowd whistled in anger when two Russian military helicopters flew low over the gathering.
The Tatars, a Turkic ethnic group, now make up 12 percent of the population of Crimea, but they ruled the Black Sea peninsula from the 15th century until the Russians conquered it in the 18th century.
In May 1944, shortly after Soviet troops drove German forces from Crimea, Josef Stalin accused the Tatars of collaborating with the enemy and ordered their deportation. About 250,000 Tatars were shipped in freight trains to Central Asia, where more than 40 percent died of hunger and disease.
Many Tatars later returned to Crimea in the years before and after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, which led to Crimea becoming part of an independent Ukraine.
Tatars supported the anti-government street protests that led to the ouster of pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych earlier this year and backed the new Ukrainian government in condemning Russia's annexation of the peninsula in March.
In Kiev, Tatar community leader Mustafa Dzhemilev, who was barred from Crimea after the Russian takeover, was among the marchers.
Another Tatar leader criticized authorities in Crimea, saying they interfered with the rally on Simferopol's outskirts. Refat Chubarov, chairman of the Tatar national assembly, condemned the "helicopters flying over a peaceful rally where people were praying for the souls of hundreds of those killed by the totalitarian regime" and complained that police had blocked the roads to prevent thousands of others from attending the ceremony, Interfax reported.
By banning the rally in central Simferopol, the Russians were "trampling on our memory, on an entire people," Chubarov said.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement before the anniversary expressing support for the Crimean Tatars.
"We commemorate the tragedy of 1944 with heavy hearts, even as we stand in solidarity with Crimean Tatars today against a new threat to their community," he said in Friday's statement.
Kerry also criticized what he said has been a rash of human rights abuses in Crimea since it came under Russian control.
"Murder, beatings and the kidnapping of Crimean Tatars and others have become standard fare," he said. "Thousands of Tatars and others have fled their homes in Crimea, fearful for their safety. Those who remain face a future of repression, discrimination, censorship, limits on freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and the criminalization of dissent."
Russian President Vladimir Putin warned against the Crimean Tatars "becoming pawns" in disputes between countries, in particular between Russia and Ukraine.
"I understand that there are people who ... have done a lot for the Crimean Tatars, who have fought for their rights for decades," Putin said Friday. "But we all need to realize that the interests of the Crimean Tatars today are bound to Russia."