Ukraine government offices seized
In a direct challenge to Ukraine's new leaders, armed demonstrators raise the Russian flag over a parliament building in Crimea.PT1M26S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-33mww 620 349 February 28, 2014
Simferopol,Ukraine: Viktor Yanukovych declared that he remained the lawful president of Ukraine and appealed to Russia to protect ‘‘my personal safety,’’ only hours after masked gunmen seized the regional government buildings in Crimea’s capital, barricaded themselves inside and raised the Russian flag.
Even as Ukraine’s Interior Minister appealed for calm and vowed to prevent any escalation of the confrontation in the Crimean capital, Simferopol, Mr Yanukovych added fuel to what seemed to be the stirrings of a separatist rebellion that could tear Ukraine apart.
He warned that the largely Russian regions of Ukraine in the east and in Crimea ‘‘not accept the anarchy and outright lawlessness’’ that has gripped the country.
Residing in Russia ... Deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych broke five days of silence to declare himself to still be Ukraine's head of state.
Mr Yanukovych, in a written statement given to two Russian state news agencies, sounded determined to continue to fight for power, perhaps in a splintered state, five days after he fled Kiev in a helicopter and disappeared from sight.
From the Black Sea to the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, the developments raised fears that the already wrenching confrontation over Ukraine’s future was worsening rather than ending.
‘‘I continue to consider myself the lawful head of the Ukrainian government, elected on the basis of the free expression of the will of Ukrainian citizens,’’ he said in the statement, according to the two news agencies, RIA Novosti and Itar-Tass. ‘‘I cannot be indifferent to the tragic events in my homeland.’’
A pro-Russian rally in Simferopol, Crimea. Photo: Reuters
Whether Mr Yanukovych can cling to power remains far from clear. Members of his own party have deserted him, and the newly elected members of the parliament not only impeached him, but moved on Thursday to approve an interim government before presidential elections in May.
Mr Yanukovych’s whereabouts remain a mystery. Russian news agencies reported that he had already arrived in Russia, citing anonymous sources, but officials including President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, did not immediately confirm that.
The seizure of the government buildings in Crimea raised the spectre of a violent confrontation over the status of Crimea and other regions where a majority of residents supported Mr Yanukovych. In Simferopol, the local police sealed off access to the government buildings which were seized in mysterious overnight raids by what appeared to be militant Russian nationals. Crimea has been a source of tension between Ukraine and Russia for decades: the territory was ceded to Ukraine in 1954 and remained part of it when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
A bond that remains ... Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yanukovych in 2013.
Arsen Avakov, Ukraine’s acting interior minister, said the new government was taking unspecified measures ‘‘to counter the extremists actions and prevent an escalation of an armed conflict in the centre of the city’’. It was unclear, however, how much authority Mr Avakov has over the police and other government agencies in Crimea, where a heavily ethnic Russian population views the ouster of Mr Yanukovych as a fascist coup.
Mr Yanukovych’s remarks were his first since Saturday, when he appeared in a video that apparently was recorded in his political base in eastern Ukraine. Even in his diminished and humiliated position, with journalists and ordinary people traipsing through his presidential palace and sorting through incriminating records, Mr Yanukovych asserted his authority over the country’s armed forces and warned that they should not be called in to quell the apparent rebellion in Simferopol.
‘‘I, as the actual president, have not allowed the armed forces of Ukraine to interfere in the ongoing internal political events,’’ he said, contradicting reports that he had ordered the military to intervene in Kiev, only to have his order rebuffed. ‘‘I continue to order this. In the case that anyone begins to give a similar order to the armed forces and power structures, those orders will be unlawful and criminal.’’
People carry a giant Russian flag during a pro-Russian rally in Simferopol. Photo: Reuters
Russia has denounced the political upheaval in Kiev and refused to recognise the new interim government, but officials have also insisted that Russia would not intervene, even as it began a massive military drill on Ukraine’s doorstep. Granting sanctuary to Mr Yanukovych even as he claims to lead Ukraine would nonetheless deepen the confrontation with Europe and the United States.
Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, has repeatedly insisted that Ukraine’s leaders were bound by an agreement mediated by three European foreign ministers. That agreement, signed last Friday, called for an interim national unity government and new elections, but not until December. Mr Yanukovych’s statement echoed that position, though it appears highly unlikely that the collapse of that agreement could now be reversed.
The overnight raids in Simferopol created an ominous uncertainty and left residents stunned. The raids took place just hours after thousands of Crimean Tatars, the region’s minority indigenous Turkic population and a separate throng of ethnic Russians staged competing rallies outside Crimea’s regional parliament. The rallies, which ended in a chaotic melee and left several people injured, disrupted a session of the regional parliament that hardline pro-Russia groups had hoped would declare Crimea’s secession from Ukraine.
A Pro-Russian demonstrator waves Russian and Crimea flags from an old Soviet Army tank in Simferopol. Photo: AP
‘‘This is the first step toward civil war,’’ said Igor Baklanov, a computer expert who joined a group of anxious residents gathered in a cold drizzle at a police line near the seized regional legislature.
Rumours swirled of Russian troops on the way from Sevastopol, the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, of Russian nationalists arriving in force to reinforce the blockaded government buildings and of negotiations between the local authorities and the unidentified gunmen.
With most streets in Simferopol empty of traffic after authorities ordered a city-wide holiday, columns of pro-Russia activists marched into a square in front of the barricaded parliament building. Waving Russian flags and chanting ‘‘Rossiya, Rossiya,’’ they swelled an angry but peaceful throng that wants Crimea to split from Ukraine and join Russia.
Russian sailors at a navy base in the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Sevastopol, Crimea. Photo: Reuters
The regional parliament called an emergency session for Friday afternoon, though it was unclear if one could be held in an occupied and now fortified building.
The developments came as the authorities in Kiev and Moscow traded bellicose warnings. Mr Lavrov was quoted as saying that his country would defend its compatriots in Ukraine ‘‘uncompromisingly,’’ while officials in Kiev warned the Russian military to remain within its base in Sevastopol.
Failure to remain on the base ‘‘will be considered a military aggression,’’ Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, told the national parliament, news reports said.
Meanwhile, Russia mobilised air and ground forces for military exercises in western Russia.
The events in Crimea sent ripples through the already wobbly process of forming a new government in Kiev.
About noon, Pyotr Mekhed, the choice of the interim government for minister of defence, walked out of parliament and huddled with a group of his supporters among Ukrainian veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. The veterans earlier in the morning had driven an armoured car onto the plaza in front of parliament, saying they wanted to show ‘‘moral support for our candidate,’’ Mekhed.
Oleg Mikhnyuk, a commander of a unit of Afghan veterans called the Afghan Hundred who protested on Independence Square, said that in the discussion the veterans weighed the significance of the armed takeover of the regional parliament in Crimea a few hours earlier.They concluded the armed and masked men taking action in the south were probably Russian commandos and that thus war with Russia on the peninsula loomed for any new minister of defence.
‘‘This is already a declaration of war,’’ Mr Mikhnyuk said of events in Crimea.
New York Times