Armed men yesterday seized the regional government headquarters and parliament in Ukraine’s Crimea and raised the Russian flag, alarming Kiev’s new rulers, who urged Moscow not to abuse its navy base rights on the peninsula by moving troops around.
“I am appealing to the military leadership of the Russian Black Sea fleet,” said Olexander Turchinov, acting president since the removal of Viktor Yanukovych last weekend.
“Any military movements, the more so if they are with weapons, beyond the boundaries of this territory [the base] will be seen by us as military aggression,” he said.
Ukraine’s foreign ministry also summoned Russia’s acting envoy in Kiev for immediate consultations.
Crimea, the only Ukrainian region with an ethnic Russian majority, is the last big bastion of opposition to the new leadership in Kiev following Yanukovych’s ouster and provides a base there for the Russian Black Sea fleet.
In Kiev, Ukraine’s new rulers pressed ahead with efforts to restore stability to the divided country, approving the formation of a national coalition government with former economy minister Arseny Yatseniuk as its proposed head.
Yatseniuk told parliament that Yanukovych had driven the country to the brink of economic and political collapse, and warned of growing threats to the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
“We must preserve the integrity of the Ukrainian state, which will one day become a member of the European Union,” he said.
Yanukovych yesterday said he was still president of Ukraine and warned its “illegitimate” rulers that people in the southeastern and southern regions would never accept mob rule.
In a statement sent to Russian news agencies from an unknown location, Yanukovych railed against the “extremists” who had stolen power in Ukraine, threatened violence against himself and his closest aides, and passed “illegal” laws.
As the drama unfolded in Crimea, there were mixed signals from Moscow, which put warplanes along its western borders on combat alert. Earlier it said it would take part in discussions on an IMF financial package for Ukraine.
Ukraine has said it needs US$35 billion over the next two years to stave off bankruptcy. The fear of military escalation prompted expressions of concern from the West, with NATO Secretary-
General Anders Fogh Rasmussen urging Russia not to do anything that would “escalate tension or create misunderstanding.”
Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski called the seizure of government buildings in the Crimea a “very dangerous game.”
“This is a drastic step, and I’m warning those who did this and those who allowed them to do this, because this is how regional conflicts begin,” he told a news conference.
It was not immediately known who was occupying the buildings in the regional capital, Simferopol, and they issued no demands, but witnesses said they spoke Russian and appeared to be ethnic Russian separatists.
Interfax news agency quoted a witness as saying there were about 60 people inside and they had many weapons.
It said no one had been hurt when the buildings were seized in the early hours by Russian speakers in uniforms that did not carry identification markings.
About 100 police were gathered in front of the parliament building, and a similar number of people carrying Russian flags later marched up to the building chanting “Russia, Russia” and holding a sign calling for a Crimean referendum.