Armed men yesterday took control of two airports in the Crimea region in what Ukraine’s government described as an invasion and occupation by Russian forces, stoking tensions between Moscow and the West.
More than 10 Russian military helicopters also flew into Ukrainian airspace over the region yesterday, Kiev’s border guard service said, accusing Russian servicemen of blockading one of its units in the port city of Sevastopol, where part of Moscow’s Black Sea fleet is based.
However, the fleet denied its forces were involved in seizing one of the airports, Interfax news agency reported, while a supporter described the armed group at the other site merely as Crimean militiamen.
Tensions have been rising on the Black Sea peninsula, the only Ukrainian region that has an ethnic Russian majority and the last major bastion of resistance to the overthrow of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych almost a week ago.
Ukraine’s top security official, Andriy Paruby, said the armed men were taking their orders from the top in Russia.
“These are separate groups ... commanded by the Kremlin,” Paruby, secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, told a televised briefing in Kiev.
One of the options being considered was declaring a state of emergency in Crimea, he added.
Amid the confusion over the men’s identity, acting Ukrainian President Oleksander Turchinov fired his armed forces chief, while parliament urged Moscow to halt any action that might encourage separatism and asked the UN Security Council to discuss the crisis.
Near the military airport, half a dozen men in camouflage uniforms with automatic rifles were blocking the road using a truck with no license plates. Reporters were kept from approaching them by volunteer militia, who formed a second road block about 150m away.
Meanwhile, Yanukovych held a press conference in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, saying he was still the nation’s rightful leader and that he had been forced to leave because of a threat to his life and those of his family.
He insisted he “had not been overthrown” and would “continue to fight” for the future of Ukraine.
Additional reporting by Bloomberg