Gunmen seize government buildings in Ukraine's Crimea, raise Russian flag
KIEV, Ukraine (CNN) — Dozens of armed men seized the regional government administration building and parliament in Ukraine's southern Crimea region Thursday and raised the Russian flag in a challenge to the Eastern European country's new leaders.
Crimea, with its ethnic Russian majority, is the last big bastion of opposition to the new political leadership in Kiev after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's ouster Saturday.
The incident, coming a day after Russia ordered surprise military exercises on Ukraine's doorstep, has raised fears about the push and pull of opposing allegiances in a country sandwiched between Russia and the European Union.
There's a broad divide between those who support developments in Kiev -- where parliament was voting on an interim West-leaning government Thursday -- and those who back Russia's continued influence in Crimea and across Ukraine.
Lawmakers in Kiev approved opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk of the Batkivschina, or Fatherland, party as Prime Minister.
At a meeting of NATO's defense ministers in Brussels, Belgium, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen urged the new Ukrainian leadership "to continue its efforts to establish an inclusive political process that reflects the democratic aspirations of the entire Ukrainian people."
Earlier in the day, he also urged Russia to act with caution. "I'm concerned about developments in #Crimea. I urge #Russia not to take any action that can escalate tension or create misunderstanding," he tweeted.
In turn, the Russian Foreign Ministry said the Kremlin will "give a tough and uncompromised response to violations of compatriots' rights by foreign states."
It was not immediately known who was occupying the buildings in Simferopol, the regional capital. The head of the region, Premier Anatolii Mohyliov, told CNN the gunmen were refusing to speak with him, telling him he had no authority.
The men, who stormed the building early Thursday morning, had made no demands, and it was not clear what they wanted, he said.
He said there are no civilians in the building and "the situation is under control."
He added that government security forces, which were outside the buildings, would not use force or weapons to take over the buildings.
"All police in Ukraine have been ordered to be prepared," acting Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov wrote on his Facebook page. "Orders have been issued to create a cordon around the Parliament in Crimea and to avoid shooting and violence."
A witness, who gave his name only as Maxim, said he saw the armed men run into the building.
"Inside, nobody knows what is going on inside at the moment. We only saw the building being taken over," he said. "When they took over the building, they kicked out police from there. More buses came and around 30 more people came out. They started to bring their bags and the bags had RPG's (anti-tank weapons), there was SVD (sniper rifles), Kalashnikov (assault) rifles, handguns, so these people were fully armed."
Rasmussen, NATO's secretary general, described the seizure of the regional government administration building and parliament as "dangerous and irresponsible."
Military vehicles seen, scuffles break out
Meanwhile, Violetta Lisina, press secretary to the Crimean Prime Minister, wrote on her Facebook page that there were seven armored personnel carriers outside the village of Ukromnoye earlier Thursday.
She said the vehicles were Russian, from the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which is based at Sevastopol.
The village is roughly 9 miles northwest of Simferopol, and about an hour north of Sevastopol.
Local media said the vehicles later returned to their base, though the reports did not make clear where that was.
Tensions have simmered in the Crimea region since Yanukovych's ouster last week.
Scuffles broke out Wednesday as the mood soured among thousands of people rallying in front of the Crimean parliament building.
One group waved Ukrainian flags and shouted "Crimea is not Russia," while the other held Russian flags aloft and shouted "Crimea is Russia."
Local leaders sought to calm the mood, urging the protesters to go home and resist provocations.
Also on Wednesday, Russia ordered military exercises near Ukraine. The timing of the move prompted speculation about the Kremlin's motives.
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said the exercises were to check "combat readiness." And U.S. military intelligence saw no immediate indication the Russians were preparing for any offensive military action in Ukraine, two U.S. officials said.
Instead, the officials said intelligence suggests Russia is "repositioning" up to half a dozen Russian ships near the Ukrainian port city of Sevastopol in case they're needed to respond if Russian interests are threatened.
About 60% of Sevastopol's population is Russian.
Concerns were heightened in the region when the Crimean parliament convened a previously unscheduled session Wednesday, amid local media reports that secession might be on the agenda.
But parliament Speaker Volodimir Konstantinov dismissed the reports as "rumors" and urged residents to not be provoked.
In Sevastopol, residents told CNN they were angry that Yanukovych had been forced out and fear that they will be oppressed by the country's new leaders.
Many are struggling to come to grips with the rapid political upheaval.
Russia's Foreign Ministry has accused Ukraine's lawmakers of discriminating against ethnic Russians by excluding them from the reform process.
In the capital, Kiev, Ukraine's parliament met to vote in a new government Thursday after protest leaders named the ministers they want to form a new Cabinet.
Leaders of the popular demonstrations that toppled Yanukovych named Yatsenyuk, a former economic minister, as their choice to head the new interim government.
In a display of people power, the announcement of Yatsenyuk and candidates for other key ministries was made Wednesday after protest leaders addressed crowds on Independence Square, the heart of the protests.
The crowd, some of them dressed in camouflage, cheered as the names were read out.
Lawmakers face the challenge of forming a body that genuinely represents all the main political parties, despite their widely divergent views.
Presidential and local elections are due on May 25. Opposition leader and former heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko will run for the presidency, his press secretary said.
Last week, bloody street clashes between demonstrators and security forces killed more than 80 people, the deadliest violence in the country since it gained independence when the Soviet Union collapsed 22 years ago.
Russia says Yanukovych was driven out by an "armed mutiny" of extremists and terrorists. A warrant has been issued for his arrest, but his whereabouts remain unknown.
While Yanukovych is on the run, the diplomatic wheels have been set in motion within the international community. One key concern is cash-strapped Ukraine's perilous financial position.
Yanukovych's decision to scrap a European Union trade deal in favor of one with Russia prompted the protests, which began in November.
CNN's Ingrid Formanek reported from Kiev, and Marie-Louise Gumuchian and Laura Smith-Spark wrote from London. CNN's Phil Black and Frederik Pleitgen also contributed to this report, as did journalist Azad Safarov.