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Demonstrators burnt on Wednesday an Uncle Sam dummy during a protest
Demonstrators burnt on Wednesday an Uncle Sam dummy during a protest against plans to open a U.S. diplomatic office in Simferopol, the capital of the Ukrainian autonomous republic of Crimea.

The dummy, with a model cruise missile in each hand and the words U.S.A. written on it, was covered in petrol and set alight as some 250 people attended a protest rally in front of the republic's upper house of parliament.

"The U.S. diplomatic office, if it is opened, will become a destabilizing factor for Crimea," said Oleg Rodivilov, a regional lawmaker from the Russian Bloc party.

Protestors also said the office would be used "for intelligence gathering" and "to force the Russian Navy from its Black Sea port." They also chanted slogans against Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, calling him a "U.S. puppet," as well as "Down with the U.S."

The office would be staffed by one or two diplomats, according to U.S. State Department press secretary, Sean McCormick.

In December 2008, Ukraine and the U.S. signed an agreement on defense and security cooperation, as well as the development of economic, trade and energy ties in the region.

Under the terms of the agreement, Ukraine allowed the U.S. to open an office in Simferopol. The speaker of the republic's upper house of parliament, Anatoliy Hrytsenko, demanded in December however that the decision be agreed on first with the Crimean authorities.

Residents of the peninsula are predominantly Russian-speaking and staunchly pro-Moscow. In September 2008, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Volodymyr Ogryzko said that Moscow was handing out Russian passports to residents of Crimea. Russia has strongly denied this. On February 16, the mayor of the Crimean city of Sevastopol, citing polls, said however that the majority of the peninsula's residents were against Crimea becoming a part of Russia.

Russia and Ukraine signed an agreement in 1997 stipulating that the Black Sea Fleet's main base in Sevastopol be leased to Russia for 20 years, with the possibility of extending the deal. However, Yushchenko has said that there is no possibility of extending the lease when it runs out in 2017.

The annual rent of about $100 million is deducted from Ukraine's debt for Russian energy supplies. In addition to the main base, the Black Sea Fleet maintains two airfields and a ship re-supply facility on the Crimean Peninsula.

The U.S. strongly supported a recent unsuccessful Ukrainian bid to gain a NATO Membership Action Plan, a key step toward membership of the military alliance. Crimea has also seen violent protests against NATO military exercises in the area.

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