SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (Reuters) - Armed men
took control of two airports in the Crimea region on Friday in what
Ukraine's government described as an invasion and occupation by Russian
forces, raising tension between Moscow and the West.
Russia's Black Sea fleet, which is based in the region, denied its
forces were involved in seizing one of the airports, Interfax news
agency reported, while a supporter described the group at the other
site merely as Crimean militiamen.
Amid the confusion over the men's identity, acting president
Oleksander Turchinov called an emergency session of his security
chiefs, while parliament urged Moscow to halt any action that might
encourage separatism and asked the United Nations Security Council
to discuss the crisis.
Tensions have been rising on the Black Sea peninsula, the only
Ukrainian region that has an ethnic Russian majority and the last
major bastion of resistance to the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovich as
president almost a week ago.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov accused Russian naval forces of
taking over a military airport near the port of Sevastopol, where
the Black Sea fleet has its base, and other Russian forces of
seizing Simferopol's civilian international airport.
"I consider what has happened to be an armed invasion and occupation
in violation of all international agreements and norms," Avakov said
on his Facebook page, describing it as a "provocation" and calling
This met with a Russian denial of involvement in the military
airport action. "No Black Sea Fleet units have moved toward (the
airport), let alone taking any part in blockading it," Interfax
quoted a spokesman for the fleet as saying.
Yanukovich is expected to appear before reporters in the Russian
city of Rostov-on-Don later on Friday, though President Vladimir
Putin has not said whether Moscow will harbor the former leader, who
is on the run and wanted by the new government for mass murder after
the deaths of protestors in Kiev last week.
The United States has told Russia to show in the next few days that
it is sincere about a promise not to intervene in Ukraine, saying
using force would be a grave mistake.
"We believe that everybody now needs to take a step back and avoid
any kind of provocations," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told a
joint news conference with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter
Steinmeier. "We want to see in the next days ahead that the choices
Russia makes conform to this affirmation we received today."
ORDERS FROM PUTIN
The Kremlin said Putin had ordered his government to continue talks
with Ukraine on economic and trade relations and to consult foreign
partners including the International Monetary Fund on financial aid.
It also said Putin ordered the government to consider a request from
Crimea for humanitarian aid but made no direct reference to the
Yanukovich provoked protests in Ukraine in November by backing out
of plans to sign landmark deals with the European Union and instead
saying Kiev would seek closer economic and trade ties with its
former Soviet master Russia.
In December, Putin promised Yanukovich a $15 billion bailout, but
Russia has put the deal on hold after releasing an initial
installment, saying it wants more clarity about the new government
and its policies.
Ukraine's hryvnia currency has been in freefall in recent days as
investors worried about Kiev's ability to repay its debts. But with
the new rulers seeking IMF help, it bounced back 5 percent to 10.50
per dollar on Friday, according to Reuters data, from the record low
of 11.0 reached on Thursday.
Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said Ukraine hoped to begin
receiving international aid soon and was determined to fulfil
conditions needed for IMF support. A previous deal collapsed after
Kiev failed to implement IMF demands for lower gas subsidies, which
would have hurt Ukrainians by pushing up energy prices sharply.
The IMF also wanted a more flexible currency regime, something that
has now come about as Kiev gave up this week its attempts to arrest
the hryvnia's slide, which had burnt through its dollar reserves.
Central bank Governor Stepan Kubiv also said foreign currency
withdrawals from bank deposits would be limited to 15,000 hryvnia
($1,500) per day.
Kiev's new rulers have said any movement by Russian forces beyond
the Black Sea fleet base in Sevastopol would be tantamount to
But it faces a major challenge in Crimea which was Russian territory
until it was transferred to Ukraine in 1954, during the Soviet era.
Separatism there has often flared up at times of tension between
Moscow and Kiev.
Unidentified gunmen seized the Crimean parliament and raised a
Russian flag on Thursday. The gunmen issued no demands and police
were casually guarding the building.
Armed men took control of Simferopol airport overnight and were
patrolling its grounds on Friday morning.
A Reuters eyewitness at the scene said the men, dressed in full
battle gear and carrying assault rifles and machine guns, were
moving freely in an out of the control tower.
A man called Vladimir, who said he was a volunteer helping the
group, said: "I'm with the People's Militia of Crimea. We're simple
people, volunteers ... We're here at the airport to maintain order.
We'll meet the planes with a nice smile - the airport is working as
The Belbek military airport near Sevastopol was taken over by what
Avakov said were military units of the Russian fleet, and armed men
in camouflage were guarding the perimeter fence.
One of the men was quoted as saying the aim was to prevent Avakov
flying to Crimea.
"Tension is rising," Avakov said. "While we don't have direct
military clashes, diplomats should talk."
The regional parliament in Crimea managed to hold a session inside
the building on Thursday despite the siege, where it voted to stage
a referendum on "sovereignty" for Crimea.
Russia's flag still flew from its roof, and lights were on in the
windows of its top floor. It was not clear whether the armed men
were still inside.
Acting-president Turchinov warned Russia on Thursday not to move
personnel beyond areas permitted by treaty for those using its naval
"Any military movements, the more so if they are with weapons,
beyond the boundaries of this territory will be seen by us as
military aggression," he said.
Russia has repeatedly declared it will defend the interests of its
citizens in Ukraine, and announced war games on Wednesday near the
border, involving 150,000 troops on high alert. Kerry said Lavrov
told him the exercises had been pre-planned.
Although Moscow says it will not intervene by force, its rhetoric
since the removal of its ally Yanukovich has echoed the run-up to
its invasion of Georgia in 2008, when it sent its troops to protect
two self-declared independent regions and then recognized them as
Witness accounts suggest those who captured the Crimean parliament
building in the early hours of Thursday were pro-Russian gunmen of
(Additional reporting by Piotr Pilat in Simferopol, Natalia Zinets
and Pavel Polityuk in Kiev and Elizabeth Piper in Moscow; Writing by
Timothy Heritage, Richard Balmforth and David Stamp; Editing by Will