Moscow: Masked Russian riot police on Monday raided the office of a television channel serving Crimean Tatars, a minority ethnic group in Crimea that opposed Moscow`s seizure of the peninsula from Ukraine last year.
In a move the Organization for Security and Cooperation slammed as "intrusion" against the freedom of the media, dozens of armed masked men searched the headquarters of the ATR channel in the regional centre Simferopol, seizing servers and other equipments.
"This is the first such raid," deputy general director of the channel, Lilya Budzhurova, told AFP.
Budzhurova, who also reports for Agence France-Presse, said police and investigators had left in the afternoon, taking "a significant portion of our video archive" with them.
The Moscow-based Investigative Committee said the raid was to probe the deaths of two activists after a rally in February last year outside the local legislative assembly.
The rally involved thousands of Crimean Tatars as well as pro-Russian activists, the committee said, adding that the channel had video footage that can help the investigation.
Budzhurova said two elderly people were killed in a stampede at the protest. The rally was held a day before armed men had seized the assembly and raised the Russian flag during Moscow`s takeover of Crimea.
Nearly half of Crimean Tatars, a Muslim people native to the Black Sea peninsula, were wiped out when they were accused by Stalin of collaborating with Nazi Germany and deported to Central Asia in 1944. Survivors and descendants were only able to return to their lands in the 1990s after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Most of the 300,000-strong group oppose Russian rule over Crimea and boycotted a disputed referendum last March in which voters, most of them from the Russian-speaking majority, were officially reported to have chosen to split from Ukraine.
The new Russian authorities have detained Tatar activists, evicted them from their assembly and accused ATR, which broadcasts in Russian, Tatar and Ukrainian, of extremism.
The leader of the Crimean Tatar minority`s political assembly, the Mejlis, Refat Chubarov, claimed the probe into the rally was merely being used as an excuse to muzzle the channel.
"Occupation authorities cannot put up with the fact that journalists for whom honour and dignity trump fear are still working on the peninsula," he said on Facebook.The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe condemned the searches, saying the company should be allowed to resume broadcasting as soon as possible.
"This practise of intrusion of free and independent media cannot be tolerated in the OSCE region," the security body`s representative on freedom of the media Dunja Mijatovic said in a statement.
The raid came just days after a former commander with pro-Russian separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine claimed that Crimea`s local authorities had stayed loyal to Kiev during Moscow`s seizure of the peninsula and that lawmakers had to be "corralled" into parliament.
The claims from former separatist defence minister Igor Strelkov contradict an official Kremlin narrative that Russia did not put any pressure on Crimean authorities.
On February 27, 2014 -- the day after the Crimean Tatar rally -- the local assembly approved the candidacy of Crimea`s new pro-Moscow prime minister.
The closed-door session also called for a referendum on the future of Crimea.