Ukraine accused Russia of staging an “armed invasion” of Crimea on Friday and appealed to the West to guarantee its territorial integrity after pro-Kremlin gunmen took control of the peninsula’s main airport.
The spiralling tensions in a splintered nation torn between Russia and the West were due to take a dramatic new turn later on Friday when ousted president Viktor Yanukovych briefs reporters after winning protection from Moscow.
Unidentified armed men in full combat gear were patrolling outside of Crimea’s main airport early on Friday while gunmen were also reported to have seized another airfield on the southwest of the peninsula where ethnic Russians are a majority and where pro-Moscow sentiment runs high.
Ukraine’s parliament immediately appealed to the United States and Britain to uphold a 1994 pact signed with Russia that guaranteed the country’s sovereignty in return for it giving up its Soviet nuclear arms.
Interim president Oleksandr Turchynov also told agitated lawmakers that he was convening the country’s security and defence chiefs for an emergency meeting over the unfolding crisis.
Western governments have been been watching with increasing worry as Kiev’s new pro-EU rulers grapple with dual threats of economic collapse and secession from Russian-speaking southern and eastern regions that had backed fugitive ex-president Viktor Yanukovych.
Russian President Vladimir Putin this week stoked concerns that Moscow might use its military might to sway the outcome of Ukraine’s three-month standoff by ordering snap combat drills near its border involving 150,000 troops and nearly 900 tanks.
US Secretary of State John Kerry attempted to relieve diplomatic pressure that has increasingly assumed Cold War overtones by announcing that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had assured him that Moscow “will respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
Putin also appeared to take a more conciliatory approach late on Thursday by vowing to work on improving trade ties with Ukraine and promising to support international efforts to provide Kiev with funds that could keep it from declaring a debt default as early as next week.
Yet tensions continued to soar by the hour in the Russian-speaking Crimea — a scenic Black Sea peninsula that has housed Kremlin navies for nearly 250 years and was handed to Ukraine as a symbolic gift by a Soviet leader in 1954.
– ‘Armed invasion’ –
Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov accused the Russian armed forces of being directly involved in dawn raids on an airport in Crimea’s main city of Simferopol as well as an airfield on the southwestern coast.
Dozens of men in battle fatigues and armed with Kalashnikovs encircled the Simferopol airport on Friday morning, which an administrator told AFP was “operating normally.”
Unconfirmed reports by Ukrainian media said armed men had also seized the Belbek airfield near the city of Sevastopol — home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
Avakov said the gunmen at the Simferopol airport “are not even hiding the fact that they belong to the armed forces of the Russian Federation.”
The interior minister added that the Belbek airfield was “blockaded by military units of the Russian navy.”
“I consider what is happening to be an armed invasion and an occupation,” Avakov said in a statement posted on his Facebook account.
The peninsula of nearly two million people has been in crisis since dozens of pro-Kremlin gunmen seized and raised the Russian flag over Crimea’s parliament and government buildings on Wednesday.
Crimean lawmakers appointed Russian Unity party member Sergiy Aksyonov as regional premier in place of Kiev-allied Anatoliy Mohilyov in a vote held late on Thursday under the watchful eye of the pro-Kremlin militia.
Aksyonov said on Friday that he still recognised Yanukovych as Ukraine’s legitimate head of state.
The fugitive leader had not been seen since making a brief taped television appearance last Saturday that was aired only hours before parliament stripped him of power for a week of carnage in Kiev that claimed nearly 100 lives.
– Yanukovych emerges in Russia –
Ukraine’s bloodiest crisis since its 1991 independence erupted in November when Yanukovych made the shock decision to ditch an EU trade pact in favour of closer ties with old master Russia.
The 63-year-old fugitive announced from an undisclosed location on Thursday that he was “compelled to ask the Russian Federation to ensure (his) personal security.”
A source later told Russian news agencies that Yanukovych’s request for protection “was satisfied on Russian territory.”
– Swiss bank accounts –
The ousted leader was expected to appear before the media at 1300 GMT in Rostov-on-Don — a Russian city less than two hours’ drive from the Ukrainian border.
Meanwhile Switzerland said it was prepared to freeze any funds the Yanukovych family might have in the Alpine country’s banks.
It is unclear whether Yanukovych himself has funds in Switzerland. But his 40-year-old son Olexandr opened a branch of his Management Assets Company (MAKO) in Geneva in late 2011.
Ukraine’s new leaders meanwhile are suffering from Moscow’s decision to freeze a $15-billion bailout package Putin promised to Yanukovych in return for his rejection of the EU deal.
The country’s Central Bank was forced on Friday to lower the maximum amount of money individuals can withdraw from banksmaximum amount of money individuals can withdraw from banks in a day to about 1,100 euros ($1,400) from the 4,000-euro ($5,500) limit it imposed on February 7.
The Ukrainian hryvnia had lost about 13 percent of its value between Wednesday and Thursday before regaining some strength on Friday amid expectations of the imminent delivery of urgent Western aid.
IMF chief Christine Lagarde promised on Thursday to send a fact-finding mission to Kiev that could open the way for the quick release of about $2.5 billion in EU and US loans.