More than 200 Muslim gravestones were defaced in Ukraine`s restive Crimea region, police said on Monday, according to DPA. "Unknown vandals" using a sledge-hammer or similar blunt object destroyed the Islamic headstones in two cemeteries in the multi- ethnic peninsula, a statement from the Symferopol regional police said.

According to DPA, the villages nearest the cemeteries - Marfovka and Voikovo - are predominantly Slavic communities. Crimea in recent years has been the scene of repeated conflicts between Christian ethnic Slavs and Muslim ethnic Tartars, most often over land rights.

Satanic grafitti on some of the defaced graves made religious cult activity, rather than ethnic antagonism, the most like grounds for the grave defilements, the police statement said in part.

The Crimean police force, an overwhelmingly Christian-Slavic organization, has repeatedly played down instances of possible inter-ethnic tension, only to see violence and property damage seemingly stemming from Christian-Muslim antagonism crop up again in the region.

The last major row took place in November, when hundreds of ethnic Tartar squatters and Slavic police brawled at a construction site in the Crimean regional capital Simferpol in November. The cops eventually won the battle using clubs, superior numbers, and tear gas.

The Tartars had occupied the site to protest allegedly unfair land distribution.

The Black Sea resort town of Sudak saw a similar fracas in July, when seven policemen and an unknown number of Tartar were hospitalized after a street battle over whether Tartars would be allowed to demonstrate near the city hall.

Ukraine`s Tartars generally follow the Sunni Muslim faith and constitute some 20 per cent of the Crimea`s populace. Ethnic Russians and Ukrainians generally follow the Orthodox Christian faith and make up the majority of the peninsula`s inhabitants.

Soviet dictator Josef Stalin exiled all Tartars from Crimea in 1944, because of alleged collaboration with German invaders during the Second World War. Tartars had settled in the region some 700 years previously, a half-millenium before Slavic colonization.

When Ukraine became independent in 1991 the former Soviet republic`s new government opened Crimea to Tartar return, without determining what land the Tartars should settle on. In most cases, the Tartars wound up in sustenance farming villages located on the arid peninsula`s worst land.

Violence over the last 20 months in Crimea has included a the fire-bombing of a mosque, a brawl between Tartars and Slavs over control of an open-air market, and the murder of a Tartar journalist investigating corrupt land sales.