Mourners at murdered Crimean Tatar's burial blame Putin

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (Reuters) - Hundreds of mourners gathered at a cemetery outside Simferopol on Tuesday for the burial of Reshat Ametov, whose murder has sparked anger and fear in a Crimean Tatar community bitterly opposed to Russia’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula.

Ametov, who was in his 30s, disappeared on March 3 when three men in military jackets led him away from the scene of a protest in the Crimean regional capital of Simferopol, witnesses said.

One friend at the burial, who declined to be named for fear of reprisals from pro-Russian agitators, said the father of three had gone into town in order to enlist for the Ukrainian army amid escalating tensions with Russia.

His body was found nearly two weeks later near the town of Belogorsk, 50 km (30 miles) east of Simferopol, naked and showing signs of torture and beating.

Thousands of Russian troops have entered Crimea in recent weeks in a move President Vladimir Putin said was necessary to protect the peninsula’s Russian majority from “fascists” in Kiev who toppled pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovich last month.

Nearly 97 percent of voters in Sunday’s referendum chose to leave Ukraine and join Russia. But Crimea’s Sunni Muslim Tatars, who boycotted the vote, are fearful that Moscow rule will mark a return to Soviet repression through much of the 20th century.

At the funeral on a windswept hillside, around 300 Tatars paid their respects to Ametov, whose brutal murder has shocked the community and raised fears of further acts of violence against its 200,000 or so members.

“This is the first time in 20 years that this has happened,” said one mourner, who, like most others, would not give his name. “I don’t think this will be the end,” added the man, who was in his 50s and wearing a traditional black wool hat. “Putin arrives, and this happens. Of course it’s him. It’s like there is a plan for some kind of civil war.

“The Russian army is here, people are scared and nobody wants to live staring down the barrel of a gun.”

The arrival of Russian forces, backed by armored personnel carriers and artillery, has raised tensions in Crimea and led to accusations from pro-Ukrainian citizens that the referendum, which the West does not recognize, was held under occupation.

Russian officially denies sending extra troops to Crimea, where it leases the port of Sevastopol from Ukraine for its Black Sea Fleet.

As well as soldiers, pro-Russian “self-defense” units made up of volunteers have been patrolling the streets in towns across Crimea, and masked, armed men, many in balaclavas, were a common sight in the run-up to the vote.

Human Rights Watch described a “climate of fear” in Crimea around the time of the referendum, and urged local authorities to investigate thoroughly Ametov’s disappearance and murder.

“For weeks, armed masked men who refuse to identify themselves have harassed and intimidated people,” said the group’s deputy Europe and Central Asia director, Rachel Denber.

Crimea’s local police force was not immediately available for comment. But the region’s prime minister, Sergei Aksyonov, has sought to calm fears that Tatars would be persecuted if the region switched to Russian rule.

“There are no ethnic or religious conflicts and we will never allow that,” he told Reuters in a recent interview.

Editing by Mark Heinrich