A soldier rests atop a Russian armored personnel carrier near the town of Bakhchisarai, Ukraine, Friday, Feb. 28, 2014. A convoy of Russian vehicles was parked on the side of the road near the town of Bakhchisarai, apparently because one of them had mechanical problems. Ivan Sekretarev/Associated Press
U.S. President Barack Obama has warned Russia against military involvement in Ukraine, noting the U.S. is “deeply concerned” about recent reports that Moscow may have forces operating within the troubled country, where tensions between East and West have been steadily mounting since the ouster of president Viktor Yanukovych.
“There will be costs for any military involvement in Ukraine,” Obama said in a statement Friday, speaking from the White House.
“Any violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty would be deeply destabilizing, which is not in the interest of Ukraine, Russia or Europe,” he added.
Ukraine accused Russia of a "military invasion and occupation" earlier on Friday
Armed, unidentified men took control of two airports in Crimea early that morning. Later in the day, eight Russian transport planes landed in Crimea with unknown cargo and about 30 Russian marines from Russia's Black Sea Fleet — which is based in Sevastopol — took position outside the area's Ukrainian coast guard base, according to Ukraine's border service.
The Il-76 planes arrived unexpectedly and were given permission to land, one after the other, at Gvardeiskoye air base, north of the regional capital of Simferopol, according to border service spokesman Serhiy Astakhov.
Astakhov said the people in the planes refused to identify themselves and waved off customs officials, saying they didn't require their services.
A convoy of Russian armoured personnel carriers was also spotted on the road between Sevastopol and Simferopol.
Ukraine's ambassador to the UN, Yuriy Sergeyev, told reporters Friday, following a meeting with the Security Council, that neither major airport in Ukraine is under national control and that the main airport was "captured by Russian armed forces."
He said 11 Russian military helicopters had been brought in along with M-24 military transport planes, and that Russian "groupies" in Crimea are challenging Ukraine's national authority.
Meanwhile, Ukraine's telecom provider, Ukrtelecom JSC, said unknown people seized several communications centres in the Crimea late Friday, knocking out the company's ability to connect the peninsula with the rest of the country. The statement on the company's website said there were almost no landline, Internet or mobile services operating in the Crimea.
Russia has kept silent on allegations of military intervention, but confirmed that armoured vehicles from its Black Sea Fleet were moving around Crimea for "security" reasons as the crisis deepened between two of Europe's largest countries.
'Who are these guys?'
Any Russian military incursion in Crimea would dramatically raise the stakes in Ukraine's conflict, which saw the pro-Russian Yanukovych flee last weekend after three months of anti-government protests. Yanukovych vowed Friday at a news conference in Russia to "keep fighting for the future of Ukraine," though he called any military action "unacceptable."
Moscow has vowed to protect Russian-speaking Ukrainians in Crimea.
The affiliation of the soldiers at the airports is a mystery, CBC correspondent Susan Ormiston reported from Simferopol.
"Who are these guys?" she said. "There are no insignia on their uniforms. They're obviously well-trained and taking orders from someone. They won't answer our questions about who is giving them orders. Ukraine's government has said they are not Ukrainian soldiers, so the suspicion is they're Russian soldiers on Ukrainian soil."
The airport deployments came a day after masked gunmen with rocket-propelled grenades and sniper rifles seized the parliament and government offices in Simferopol and raised the Russian flag. Ukrainian police cordoned off the area but didn't confront the gunmen. They remained in control of the buildings Friday.
Ormiston said there are people gathered outside the government buildings, as in recent days, and that the crowds have grown more angry and suspicious of outsiders than they were earlier this week.
Many people in the city are indifferent to the gunmen's presence, Ormiston said.
"When [the regional] parliament was stormed by gunmen two nights ago people didn’t seem to mind all that much. A great big crowd was there the next morning celebrating their success. I asked travellers at the airport [about the gunmen] today: They said 'If it’s not delaying my flight I’m not too worried about it.'"
One man who identified himself only as Vladimir told The Associated Press the men were part of the Crimean People's Brigade, which he described as a self-defence unit ensuring that no "radicals and fascists" arrive from other parts of Ukraine. There was no way to verify his account.
The situation at the airports apparently caused the closure of Crimea's airspace.
Ukraine International Airlines said Friday it has cancelled flights to and from Simferopol, due to the closure of the airspace over the peninsula. The announcement did not say who had closed the airspace.
A woman answering Simferopol airport passenger help line said the airport was not closed but that all flights were cancelled "due to the situation in Crimea."
According to Ukraine's State Border Guard Service, the Russian marines outside the coast guard base said they were there to prevent any weapons at the base from being seized by extremists.
Meanwhile, Associated Press journalists spotted a convoy of nine Russian armoured personnel carriers and a truck on a road between Sevastopol and Simferopol. The Russian tricolour flags were painted on the vehicles, which were parked on the side of the road near the town of Bakhchisarai, apparently because one of them had mechanical problems.
Russia is supposed to notify Ukraine of any troop movements outside its naval base in Sevastopol under a lease agreement with Ukraine.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said movements of armoured vehicles belonging to the Russian Black Sea Fleet were prompted by the need to ensure security of its base and didn't contradict the lease terms.
A duty officer at the Ukrainian Defence Ministry said it had no information about the vehicles' movements.
Associated Press journalists approaching the Sevastopol airport found the road leading up to it blocked by two military trucks and a handful of gunmen wearing camouflage uniforms and carrying assault rifles.
A car with Russian military plates was stopped at the roadblock. A man wearing a military uniform with a Russian flag on his sleeve got out of the car and was allowed to enter on foot after a brief discussion with the gunmen.
The Russian foreign and defence ministries had no comment. Russia's state RIA Novosti and Interfax cited an unnamed official from the Russian Black Sea Fleet denying involvement, saying Russian servicemen stationed in Crimea have not moved into the airports and denying that the Russian military was in control there.
Yanukovych vows to fight
Yanukovych made his first public appearance since fleeing Ukraine in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, not far from the Ukrainian border. It was the first confirmation that he had left the country, and he said he was "forced" to do so only after his family received threats.
"I intend to keep fighting for the future of Ukraine," he said.
Yanukovych said he supports Crimea's residents who are worried about "nationalists" in Kyiv and added that Russia cannot stand by while events in Ukraine unfold. He denied, however, that this amounts to a call for military intervention.
"Any military action in this situation is unacceptable," he said.
The prosecutor-general's office in Kyiv said it would seek Yanukovych's extradition to Ukraine, where he is wanted on suspicion of mass murder in last week's violent clashes between protesters and police, during which over 80 people were killed.
Meanwhile, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird announced $200,000 in medical aid for Ukrainians hurt in this month's political violence during an official visit to Kyiv.
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