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Updated: Fri, 28 Feb 2014 17:09:09 GMT | By The Associated Press, cbc.ca

Ukraine says Russian troops near airports, coast guard base



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

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

Ukraine accused Russia of a "military invasion and occupation" on Friday, saying Russian troops have taken up positions around a coast guard base and two airports on its strategic Crimean Peninsula.

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.

The Security Council meeting came hours after Ukraine said Russian troops have taken up positions around a coast guard base and two airports in Crimea and sought help from the council to help protect it from its powerful neighbour.​

Armed, unidentified men took control of two airports in Crimea early Friday, while a convoy of Russian armoured personnel carriers was spotted on the road between the port city of Sevastopol and the regional capital of Simferopol.

Russia has kept silent on allegations it is behind the airport seizures, but confirmed that armoured vehicles from its Black Sea Fleet, which is based in Sevastopol, were moving around Crimea for "security" reasons as the crisis deepened between two of Europe's largest countries.

Any Russian military incursion in Crimea would dramatically raise the stakes in Ukraine's conflict, which saw pro-Russian President Viktor 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, where it has a major naval base, and Ukraine and the West have warned Russia to stay away. Russia did not confirm its troops were involved in Friday's action in Crimea, which would be a major escalation.

In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he called Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to warn Moscow against military moves in Crimea, saying they could further inflame tensions in Ukraine.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday and expressed concern about any destabilization of Ukraine, her government said. She said any step that could contribute to an escalation should be avoided and "called for restraint with a view to Crimea," Merkel spokesman Steffen Seibert said in a statement.

In Kyiv, Ukraine's parliament adopted a resolution demanding that Russia halt steps it says are aimed against Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and called for a UN Security Council meeting on the crisis.

"I can only describe this as a military invasion and occupation," Ukraine's newly named interior minister, Arsen Avakov, wrote in a Facebook post.

CBC correspondent Susan Ormiston reported from Simferopol that the soldiers' exact affiliation is a mystery.

"The question this morning is: Who are these guys?" she said. "There are no insignias 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."

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 chief of Ukraine's security council, Andriy Parubiy said the gunmen had tried to "seize" the airports in the Crimean cities of Simferopol and Sevastopol but insisted in comments to the Interfax news agency that "the airports are controlled by the law enforcement bodies of Ukraine."

The tensions at two Crimea airports apparently caused the closure of airspace.

Ukraine International Airlines said Friday it has cancelled flights to and from Simferopol, the regional capital of Crimea, 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."

Russian marines near Ukraine coast guard base

Ukraine's State Border Guard Service also said about 30 Russian marines from Russia's Black Sea Fleet — which is based in Sevastopol — had taken up position outside the Ukrainian Coast Guard base in the area. It said the marines said they were there to prevent any weapons at the base from being seized by extremists.

Associated Press journalists in Crimea spotted a convoy of nine Russian armoured personnel carriers and a truck on a road between the port city of 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 the naval base it maintains 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.

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.

Road to airport blocked by military trucks

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 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.

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.

Tensions between the two countries were high, however. Russia continued with massive combat readiness exercises involving most of its troops in western and southern Russia that it said were unrelated to the Ukraine conflict. The moves were reminiscent of Cold War brinkmanship.

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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