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By Gabriela Baczynska
SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (Reuters) - Crimean "self-defense" forces that helped Russia wrest the peninsula from Ukraine will be transformed into a national guard, a senior local security official said, arguing confidently that hostilities were over.
The militia, denounced by the Western-backed government in Kiev as Moscow-sponsored thugs, went hand in hand with Russian troops in recent days taking over military facilities in the region and raising the Russian tricolor.
Comprised mainly of former servicemen and volunteers, the units began largely unarmed but later carried automatic rifles and long knives as the stand-off wore on.
Vladimir Mertsalov, one of the first to join the force and now a security adviser to Crimea's pro-Russian prime minister, Sergei Aksyonov, said the region was now safe and such extraordinary measures were no longer needed.
"That was wartime, but now the crisis requiring arms and forced interventions is over," said the 47-year-old former military officer. "I see no major threats anymore. I took my flak jacket off and put on my suit."
Mertsalov, wearing a black corduroy jacket over a white shirt, was speaking in the Simferopol government offices, a Soviet-era edifice topped with a Russian flag and almost completely empty. The new authorities have yet to build their apparatus.
The self-defense militias in Crimea say their aim is to safeguard public order and prevent "provocations".
The threat of "fascism" is their buzzword, and the Right Sector, a far-right Ukrainian nationalist movement that fought battles with police in Kiev during street protests that ousted President Viktor Yanukovich, their sworn enemy.
"We want to hold on to these people, have them engaged in the process of law enforcement, do patrolling, stand together with police at public gatherings," Mertsalov said.
"They should be ready to assemble and protect Crimea in case of any danger," he said. "Whether they will be called a national guard or something slightly different remains to be decided but the general idea remains the same."
Russia formally annexed Crimea on March 21 and has taken over most Ukrainian military facilities in the region.
The only fatalities of the East-West crisis have been a Ukrainian serviceman and a self-defense member, who were killed in a shoot-out in Simferopol on Tuesday. Militia members honored their dead comrade over the weekend.
Some critics, however, say the self-defense units are the real threat to public order and security, little more than gangs of often aggressive, masked men who rule the streets with no oversight.
There have been several incidents of militia patrols roughing up, beating or detaining people considered provocateurs and on several occasions they destroyed or seized equipment from journalists.
Their commander, 42-year-old Mikhail Sheremet, said he has 1,500 people under his command in Simferopol and no less than 10,000 between the ages of 18 and 80 at any time across the region.
Sheremet heads the Simferopol arm of the Russian Unity party of Crimea Prime Minister Aksyonov, who helped deliver the peninsula to Moscow and was one of the first locals to be awarded with a new Russian passport on Friday.
The party won just 4 percent of the vote in Crimea's last provincial election in 2010, but took power when armed men seized control of the regional parliament two days before President Vladimir Putin declared Russia's right to intervene.
Both Mertsalov and Sheremet say the self-defense units received no financial or technical assistance from Moscow and were organized purely by local residents of Crimea.
Mertsalov is currently in charge of talks between the new Crimea authorities and Ukrainian servicemen, which the pro-Russian leaders call "foreign occupiers". Crimea has ordered the Ukrainians to choose between leaving the army, leaving Crimea or staying on to serve under Russian command.
Mertsalov said those who opt to serve in Crimea, where ethnic Russians are a thin majority, will eventually have their salaries doubled.
(Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Matt Robinson and Peter Graff)