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Ukraine accuses Russia of 'naked aggression' in Crimea

Date

Roland Oliphant in Simferopol, David Blair in Kiev

Russian armored personnel carriers near the town of Bakhchisarai, Ukraine.

Russian armored personnel carriers near the town of Bakhchisarai, Ukraine. Photo: AP

Russia was accused on Friday of dramatically escalating military pressure on Ukraine amid claims by the Kiev government that Moscow had sent helicopters and other aircraft to the Crimean peninsula.

The United Nations Security Council was preparing to convene an emergency session on the crisis following a request from Ukraine, which warned that its territorial integrity was being threatened.

Ukrainian officials told a Crimean television channel that 13 planes had landed at a military air base near Simferopol, the regional capital, carrying nearly 2000 suspected troops.

Armed masked men stand at their checkpoint under a Russian flag on a highway that connects the Black Sea Crimea peninsula to mainland Ukraine near the city of Armyansk.

Armed masked men stand at their checkpoint under a Russian flag on a highway that connects the Black Sea Crimea peninsula to mainland Ukraine near the city of Armyansk. Photo: AFP

Oleksandr Turchynov, the country's interim President, said: "I personally appeal to President Putin to immediately stop military provocation and to withdraw from the Autonomous Republic of Crimea," describing Russian actions as "naked aggression".

The Ukrainian foreign ministry said it had officially protested to Moscow over the "violation of Ukraine's air space" after at least 10 Russian helicopters crossed the border.

Russian troops and armour, backed by gunmen in unmarked uniforms, fanned out across Crimea on Friday morning, seizing two airports and other key installations in an apparent attempt to assert Moscow's dominance over the region.

Despite "grave" warnings from the United States not to intervene, soldiers and unidentified armed men were deployed on Crimea's main roads and occupied key positions within ports and the region's main television station.

Although no shots were fired and there were no reported injuries, Arsen Avakov, the new Ukrainian Interior Minister, said the sudden and unannounced Russian deployment amounted to a "military invasion and occupation" of his country's territory.

The Kremlin's confrontation with Ukraine's post-revolutionary government appeared to be entering a dangerous new phase as airspace over Crimea was closed to civilian flights.

Simferopol International Airport announced that all services from Kiev were suspended until at least 6.30pm on Saturday. 

Under the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, Russia is bound to "refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine".

US President Barack Obama said Russia would face ‘‘costs’’ if it intervenes in Ukraine.

‘‘We are now deeply concerned about reports of military movements taken by the Russian Federation inside of Ukraine,’’ Mr Obama said on Friday. ‘‘The United States will stand with the international community in affirming there will be costs’’ for violating Ukraine’s sovereignty.

The US and allies may find it difficult to attend the G-8 meeting in Sochi, Russia, in June if Russia violates its commitments to a sovereign Ukraine, according to an Obama administration official. Russia’s desire for improved trade and commercial ties might also be put at risk, the official said.

The President, who spoke to Mr Putin for more than an hour last week, didn’t confirm statements by Ukrainian officials who accused Russia of invading the southern Crimea region.

‘‘Right now the situation remains very fluid,’’ Obama said, adding that Vice-President Joe Biden had spoken with the new Ukrainian prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

Russia's Black Sea Fleet maintains a garrison of 25,000 military personnel inside Crimea at a base in Sebastopol, which Moscow leases from Ukraine.

The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed that "armoured vehicles" from this base were moving within Crimea in order to protect what it called "fleet positions". The ministry added that Ukraine's government had been given a "note" to this effect.

In Kiev, the Defence and Interior ministries declined to comment. A spokesman for Ukraine's National Security Council said there was "no information" on whether this body had considered the situation in Crimea.

Viktor Yanukovych, the deposed president, appeared in public for the first time since fleeing Kiev last Friday. At a press conference in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, he declared that the "coup" against him had been "illegal".

Mr Yanukovych backed a vote in Crimea's regional parliament for a referendum on greater autonomy within Ukraine. "What is happening in Crimea is a natural reaction to the bandit revolution that has occurred in Kiev," he said.

However, Mr Yanukovych added: "I think in this situation any military action is inadmissible, and I am not asking for military assistance [from Russia]."

As he spoke, armed men had taken up positions at key installations across Crimea, where 58 per cent of the population are Russian-speakers, many of them also ethnic Russians.

Men in unmarked camouflage uniforms occupied the civilian airport at Simferopol and Belbek air force base in Sebastopol. Roadblocks appeared on the highway that connects the two cities.

A Russian warship was reported to have blockaded the entrance to the bay at Balaklava, where Ukraine's coastguard has its headquarters.

At least 20 men wearing the uniform of Russia's Black Sea Fleet were reported to have surrounded a Ukrainian customs post in Sebastopol.

Crimea's Tatar community has fiercely opposed the notion of separatism or joining Russia.

Stalin deported the Tatars to Central Asia in 1944 for allegedly helping the Nazis. Many returned to Crimea after the Soviet Union's fall, and they now comprise 13 per cent of the region's population.

"There is potential for panic: we've got children, families, people we care about and we're worried about what might happen," said Evelina Bornoseva, a Tatar housewife from Simferopol. "We have no other homeland."

Mrs Bornoseva, 38, added: "I'm Ukrainian. When I moved here, I took Ukrainian citizenship. And it's not right that all this is resolved by stripping us of our country again."

Telegraph, London, with Bloomberg

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