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Diplomatic frenzy as Ukraine slams Russian 'aggression'

© AFP

Video by Siobhán SILKE , Catherine VIETTE

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-03-01

Armed men took control of key airports in Crimea on Friday and Russian transport planes flew into the strategic region, Ukrainian officials said, as Western governments urged Russian President Vladimir Putin Friday to avoid escalating the crisis.

Ukraine's acting president Oleksander Turchinov on Friday accused Russia of open aggression, urging Moscow to stop its "provocations" in the southern Ukrainian region of Crimea and drawing a comparison to the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008.

Western leaders urged President Vladimir Putin to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and avoid escalating tensions in the politically unstable country after Russian-speaking armed men wearing masks and no identifiable marks on their uniforms took over two airports in Crimea.

Men in fatigues took up positions around a coast guard base and two airports in the Crimean peninsula strategically located on the Black Sea. Earlier, armed men seized the Crimean parliament and a TV station.

“We saw what looked like professionally trained soldiers, armed with automatic machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers standing firmly in control of the building right under the control tower of the Simferopol civilian airport,” said Douglas Herbert from the region’s capital city.

'Violation of airspace'

Ukraine’s new leadership called the seizure of the buildings an invasion of the country by Russia. The foreign ministry protested that Russia had violated its airspace and broken the terms of the lease on its Black Sea navy base in the Crimean port of Sevastopol.

At the United Nations, the Ukrainian ambassador, Yuriy Sergeyev, said that 10 Russian transport aircraft and 11 attack helicopters had arrived in Crimea illegally, and that Russian troops had taken control of two airports in Crimea.

He described the gunmen posted outside the two airports as Russian armed forces as well as “unspecified'' units.

"Some of them identified themselves as Russians. We know specifically some of the units,'' Sergeyev said. He also said the Russians had captured the main air traffic control centre on Crimea.

“It’s unclear whether this is a prelude to a full-fledged invasion – as we saw in Georgia in 2008 – or a muscle-flexing exercise in order to send a clear message to the new government in Kiev not to assert its authority over Crimea,” Herbert said.

Western warnings

Sergeyev told FRANCE 24 that he was seeking “political and moral support” from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), after briefing the council in a closed-door meeting on Friday. Sergeyev said he was expecting “a decision to introduce measures that would stop the conflict,” adding that sending international observers to monitor the situation would be a good first step.

He did not rule out the option of sending UN peacekeeping forces into Ukraine, but said that bureaucratic implications would be make it a lengthy process.

Moscow admitted that it had sent military vehicles to Crimea, but denied it had violated Ukraine’s sovereignty or any existing accords between the two countries.

Crimea is the only region with an ethnic Russian majority and the last major bastion of resistance to the overthrow of deposed president Viktor Yanukovich, who resurfaced on Friday after one week of hiding.

Crimea is far more important to Russia, strategically, than Georgia – which Russia invaded in 2008 during a similar conflict – due its heavy presence in the Black Sea.

‘Russia must withdraw’

US President Barack Obama said he was “deeply concerned” about reports of Russian meddling in Crimea and warned that “there will be costs” for any military intervention in Ukraine.

British Prime Minister David Cameron called President Putin to express concern over the events in Crimea. "The prime minister emphasised that all countries should respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine," a Downing Street spokeswoman said.

"President Putin agreed, stressing that Russian military exercises in the area had been planned before the current situation in Ukraine," she added.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel also put in a call to her Russian counterpart, stressing any steps that might lead to an escalation of the crisis must be avoided, her office said.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt took a more direct approach, urging Russia to immediately pull troops from Simferopol.

"Crimea situation alarming. Russia must immediatey withdraw forces it controls to agreed base area. Simferopol is clearly outside this area," Bildt wrote on his Twitter account.

Losing confidence in Putin?

Yanukovich said during his press conference in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don that while he would continue to “struggle for Ukraine’s future” he would not request a military intervention from his allies in Moscow.

He took aim at the “anarchy, terror and chaos” that he said reigned over the country since he fled the capital of Kiev on Saturday.

“Power in Ukraine has been taken by nationalist, pro-fascist young people who represent the absolute minority of people in Ukraine," he said.

The deposed leader also said he was surprised that Putin had not spoken publicly on last week’s events in Ukraine, and said a meeting with the Russian president would come “when the time was right.”

Date created : 2014-02-28

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