Simferopol: Crimea’s pro-Russian parliamentarians voted behind closed doors on a declaration of intention to favour independence from Ukraine five days before a much-criticised referendum is due to be held on whether the region will become part of Russia.
Condemned by the new government in Kiev, the Crimean parliament said a ''yes'' vote in Sunday’s referendum would pave the way for Crimea to seek to join the Russian Federation.
Referring to Kosovo’s separation from Serbia, the declaration argued that a unilateral declaration of independence is ''not illegal and does not violate any norms of international law''.
The increasingly tense standoff between Russia and Ukraine has become a battle of ultimatums - the Kiev government announced it had given the regional assembly in Crimea until Wednesday to abandon its hastily called secession referendum.
Meanwhile, pro-Russian forces took over the key regional airport at Simferopol, closing the airspace to all incoming and outgoing flights except those to and from Moscow.
A convoy of Russian armoured personnel carriers and large trucks full of troops was spotted travelling north towards the Crimean border with Western Ukraine. Photo: Kate Geraghty
A commercial flight from Kiev to Simferopol was turned back before it could land, passengers said, while pro-Russian ''self-defence'' forces and Cossacks appeared to be in control of the air-traffic control tower.
Long lines began forming at banks around Simferopol on Tuesday as Crimeans worried about a devaluation in the Ukrainian currency and the deteriorating security situation sought to withdraw savings before the referendum.
All the while the movement of Russian troops throughout Crimea - including through its two largest cities Simferopol and Sevastopol - continued.
The troop convoy moves through the streets of Simferopol. Photo: Kate Geraghty
A convoy of Russian armoured personnel carriers and large trucks full of troops was travelling north towards the Crimean border with western Ukraine, and there were further troop movements reported on the Kerch to Fedosia road in the east of Crimea near the Russian border.
In Russia, Ukraine’s ousted president Viktor Yanukovych blamed the new government in Kiev, which he described as a gang of ''fascists and ultra-nationalists'', for provoking Crimea to secede by refusing to protect citizens from violence.
''The cities are being patrolled by masked gunmen,'' Mr Yanukovych said. ''This new government is firing officers from the army, those officers who don’t want lawlessness committed against civilians. They want civil war to break out.''
Pro-Russian “self-defence” forces and Cossacks in front of a building that joins the control tower at Simferopol airport. Photo: Kate Geraghty
He insisted he was still the legal president of Ukraine, as he did the last time he appeared in public on February 28 in Russia, after fleeing Ukraine.
Russia has refused to bow to criticism from the West over its military occupation of Crimea, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov indicating he was preparing a proposal to resolve the crisis and had been willing to meet US Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday.
Mr Kerry cancelled his visit to Moscow, and US State Department officials blamed Russia for cruelling prospects for a negotiated solution that involved direct talks between Russia and Ukraine.