Simferopol - The capital of Ukraine's Russian-speaking Crimea peninsula was rocked by a wave of secessionist sentiment on Wednesday as pro-Russian protesters brawled with supporters of Ukraine's new interim authorities, as simmering tensions boiled over onto the streets.
Thousands of pro-Moscow residents and Muslim Crimean Tatars backing the new leadership in Kiev held competing rallies outside the regional parliament in Simferopol, amid fears that Ukraine's pro-Moscow East could push for partition following the weekend ousting of Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych.
The avalanche of political change in Kiev caps three months of protests against Yanukovych's rule that spilled into violence last week when demonstrators clashed with security forces, leaving nearly 100 dead.
The health ministry of Crimea - which belonged to Russia until 1954 but was then handed over to the Ukrainian Soviet republic - said an unknown elderly man was found dead at the scene of the rallies in Simferopol "without any traces of bodily injuries".
"According to initial information from medics, the cause of death was acute cardiac arrest," the ministry said.
On one side of the stand-off, Tatars shouted "Ukraine! Ukraine!", and occasionally "God is the greatest!" or "Crimea is not Russia!"
"We are for the Maidan [protest movement in Ukraine], we want to enter the European Union," explained Saitmemet Muratov, a Tatar businessman in the crowd.
Tatars, a Turkic ethnic group present in Crimea since the 13th century, suffered hugely at the hands of Stalin, who deported them to Siberia and central Asia where many died of disease or starvation.
They came back to the peninsula at the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and now represent around 12% of Crimea's two million inhabitants.
Crimean Tatars actively supported the pro-West Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, and back the current protest movement that culminated in the ousting of Yanukovych.
Several metres away, though, protesters on the other side of the stand-off screamed "Russia! Russia!".
"We were once part of Russia, we want to come back to it as does everyone" said Yulia, who heads up a small business.
Alexandre, meanwhile, slammed the new leaders in power in Kiev as "fascists."
"We don't want this war that happened in Kiev on our land," he said.
As the stand-off grew more heated, the two sets of demonstrators sprayed each other with pepper spray and used batons as police struggled to keep them apart during the brief fighting.
Ambulances were called as several people nursed light injuries, before crowds dispersed following appeals from local lawmakers for them to go home.
Meanwhile, the parliamentary head of the autonomous region - where Russia's Black Sea fleet has been based for some 200 years - rejected demands to discuss breaking away from the rest of Ukraine at an emergency session Wednesday, dismissing the idea as a "provocation".
"The question of leaving Ukraine will not be put before the parliament of Crimea," speaker Volodymir Konstantinov said, in a bid to defuse the situation.
Fears over separatist tendencies in Ukraine's East and South have grown since Yanukovych's ousting, prompting dire warnings both at home and abroad.
Ukraine's interim leader Oleksandr Turchynov on Tuesday warned there were "dangerous signs of separatism" after some 10 000 pro-Russian protesters took to the main square of the Crimean port town of Sevastopol over the weekend.
Western countries have also urged the Kremlin not to meddle with Ukraine's territorial integrity.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov toned down the rhetoric from Moscow on Tuesday by saying it was sticking to a policy of "non-interference".
And on Wednesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry urged Russia to keep its word to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine, warning against any provocative actions after Moscow said it was boosting security measures in southern Crimea.