Simferopol, Ukraine: Russia’s flag flew over the regional parliament in Ukraine’s Crimea region on Thursday, as Russian President Vladimir Putin put 150,000 combat troops on high alert for war games.
Moscow denied that the previously unannounced drill – which comes after days of sabre rattling over the ousting of its ally Viktor Yanukovych in Kiev – was linked to events in Ukraine.
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Russian troops alert amid Ukraine protests
Rival groups clash in Ukraine's Crimea, as Russian President Vladimir Putin orders major military exercises across the border.
But in the Crimea, an area with an ethnic Russian majority, armed men were reported to have seized the regional government building and parliament on Thursday, after clashes on Wednesday between pro-Russia separatists and supporters of Ukraine’s new leadership.
A local leader of the Tatar ethnic group, which had clashed with the Russians, said on Facebook: ‘‘I have been told that the buildings of parliament and the council of ministers have been occupied by armed men in uniforms that do not bear any recognisable insignia. They have not yet made any demands.’’
The Crimea is home to part of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which Moscow had earlier said it was taking steps to secure.
The upheaval came as Arseniy Yatsenyuk – a prominent leader of the protests that unseated Mr Yanukovych – was named Ukraine’s new prime minister. Mr Yatsenyuk, 39, was the leader of Yulia Tymoshenko's opposition party in parliament.
The announcement by Evehen Nishchuk, spokesman for the protest movement, was made to a packed Independence Square in Kiev. Oleksandr Shlapak was named finance minister.
On Thursday Mr Yanukovich said he was still the legitimate president of Ukraine and people in the country’s southeastern and southern regions would never accept the ‘‘lawlessness’’ brought by leaders chosen by a mob.
Russian news agencies quoted a statement by Mr Yanukovich as saying he had asked Moscow to guarantee his personal safety. ‘‘I, Viktor Fedorovich Yanukovich ... consider myself the lawful head of the Ukrainian government,’’ he said.
Russian news agencies reported that Russia had agreed to ensure his personal safety of Mr Yanukovich.
In Brussels, NATO defence ministers issued a statement supporting "Ukrainian sovereignty and independence, territorial integrity, democratic development, and the principle of inviolability of frontiers". They made no direct mention of the Russian war games.
The United States warned Russia it would be a "grave mistake" to embark on a military intervention in Ukraine and said Washington was considering $US1 billion ($1.1 billion) in loan guarantees for Kiev.
"For a country that has spoken out so frequently ... against foreign intervention in Libya, in Syria, and elsewhere, it would be important for them to heed those warnings," US Secretary of State John Kerry said. "Any kind of military intervention that would violate the sovereign territorial integrity of Ukraine would be a huge – a grave mistake."
Russia's Foreign Ministry said Ukrainian extremists were "imposing their will", and a Ukrainian church affiliated with the Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church had faced threats.
Earlier Moscow denounced the rise of "nationalist and neo-fascist sentiment" in Ukraine's mainly Ukrainian-speaking west and said Russian speakers were being deprived of rights. It has repeatedly expressed concern for the safety of Russian citizens in Ukraine, using language similar to statements that preceded its invasion of Georgia in 2008.
"In accordance with an order from the President of the Russian Federation, forces of the Western Military District were put on alert at 1400 today," Interfax quoted Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu as saying.
Mr Shoigu also said Russia was also "carefully watching what is happening in Crimea" and taking "measures to guarantee the safety of facilities, infrastructure and arsenals of the Black Sea Fleet" in remarks reported by state news agency RIA.
Since Mr Yanukovych's downfall last Friday, all eyes have been on Mr Putin, who ordered the invasion of neighbouring Georgia in 2008 to protect two self-declared independent regions with many ethnic Russians and others holding Russian passports, and then recognised the regions as independent states.
Any military action in Ukraine, a country of 46 million people that has close ties with European powers and the United States, would be far more serious – the closest the West and Russia have come to outright confrontation since the Cold War.
Despite the alarm raised by the sabre-rattling, many analysts expect Mr Putin will pull back before taking armed action.
The war games would cause tension in Ukraine and Europe but were probably for show, said Moscow-based military analyst Alexander Golts: "Any rational analysis says that Russia would get nothing out of military intervention – it would become an international outcast."
Ukraine's new authorities say they are worried about separatism in Crimea, the only part of Ukraine where the majority is ethnic Russian, although many ethnic Ukrainians in other eastern areas speak Russian as a first language. The Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula administered as part of Russia until the Soviet authorities transferred it to Ukraine in 1954, has frequently seen separatist tension at times of mistrust between Moscow and Kiev.
Demonstrators poured into the regional capital Simferopol, where the provincial parliament was debating the crisis. Pro-Russian crowds, including Cossacks in silk and lambswool hats, shouted "Crimea is Russian!". More were bussed in, swelling the crowd. Police denied a report by a Russian news agency that there had been an explosion.
Rival demonstrators backing the new authorities – mainly ethnic Tatars repressed under Soviet rule – rallied under a pale blue flag, shouting "Ukraine! Ukraine!"
The International Monetary Fund has said it is prepared to send a team of negotiators to Kiev, but a government must first be formed there and request aid. Russia is all but certain to cut off a $US15 billion lifeline it offered Mr Yanukovych as the prize for turning his back on ties with the EU in November.
Mr Yanukovych fled Kiev on Friday night after days of violence in which scores of his countrymen were killed, including demonstrators shot dead by police snipers from rooftops. The government wants him tried at the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
On Wednesday the new authorities disbanded the Berkut "Golden Eagle" riot police units blamed by the public for posting sharpshooters on rooftops who killed protesters. Protester self-defence units that have occupied central Kiev were ordered to remove ski masks to be less intimidating.
A street leading to Independence Square where many were killed has been renamed Avenue of the Glory of the Heavenly Hundred for those slain. It is now covered with heaps of flowers and candles. Pictures of the dead are nailed to trees.
Acting prosecutor Oleh Makhnytsky announced he had ordered police and intelligence agencies to draw up a list of foreign accounts held by Mr Yanukovych's aides and their connections to search for "not millions, but billions" in stolen assets. Every economic deal concluded in the four years of Mr Yanukovych's presidency would be carefully re-examined for possible corruption, Mr Makhnytsky said.