Ukraine tells Russia to back off as Crimea tensions, secession fears deepen
POSTED: Friday, February 28, 2014 - 8:34am
UPDATED: Sunday, March 2, 2014 - 1:10pm
SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (CNN) — Ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovuych said Friday at a news conference in Russia that he was not overthrown but was forced to flee under threat to his life.
"I intend to continue the fight for the future of Ukraine against those who, with fear and with terror, are attempting to replace the power. Nobody has overthrown me. I was compelled to leave Ukraine due to a direct threat to my life and my nearest and dearest," he said, speaking Russian -- not Ukrainian.
[Original story posted at 7:59 a.m. ET]
Men in military uniforms patrolled the main airport in Ukraine's Russian-majority Crimean region Friday, a move that Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov called part of an "armed invasion" by Russian forces.
It's not clear who the men at that airport in the regional capital, Simferopol, are or what they intend.
But Avakov said that armed men who were also blocking a military airbase, in nearby Sevastopol, were troops from Russia's Black Sea fleet, stationed in the port city. They were camouflaged in uniforms without military insignia, he said.
Writing on his Facebook page, Avakov said Russia's actions were "an armed invasion and occupation," and "a direct military provocation on sovereign Ukrainian territory."
Around 1 p.m. Friday, the armed men still stood guard outside the main Simferopol airport. Airport operations have not been affected, civil aviation authorities said.
"We are checking to make sure that no radicals come to Crimea from Kiev, from the Ukraine," said one man, who didn't give his name.
"We don't want radicals, we don't want fascism, we don't want problems."
The men in uniform declined to say where they were from.
Other men outside Simferopol airport, dressed in black rather than military fatigues, said they belonged to the pro-Russia Unity Party and had come there on the orders of the new Crimean administration -- voted in Thursday after armed men seized the building.
Concerned about the latest developments, Ukraine's parliament passed a resolution Friday that demanded that Russia halt any activity that can be interpreted as an attack.
Russia did not react to Ukraine's latest allegations. But it continued snap military exercises on Ukraine's doorstep.
A house divided
Ever since President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted Saturday, Ukraine has been showing a deepening schism. Those in the west generally support the country's interim government and its tilt toward the European Union. And many in the east prefer things as they were -- a Ukraine where its larger neighbor, Russia, casts a long shadow.
And nowhere is that feeling more intense than in Crimea. It's the last big bastion of opposition to the new political leadership. And Ukraine suspects Russia of fomenting tension in the autonomous region -- tension that might escalate into a bid for separation by its Russian majority.
Ousted President to speak
Yanukovych, who has not been seen since his ouster, is now in Russia, where authorities have accepted his request for security, according to the state-run RIA Novosti news agency. It attributed the information to anonymous government sources.
He is expected to give a news conference Friday in the southwestern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, near the border with Ukraine.
Yanukovych has already rejected Ukraine's newly appointed unity government, saying he is still the country's legitimate elected leader, so his reappearance may only fuel the rising tensions in Crimea.
He stands accused by authorities in Ukraine of abuses including responsibility for civilian deaths. Ukrainian media have also alleged corruption by Yanukovych, citing evidence found in the lavish residence he abandoned.
The Swiss government said Friday it was freezing assets in Switzerland that belong to Yanukovych and his entourage with immediate effect, to avoid any potential embezzlement of Ukrainian public funds and stop any money leaving Switzerland.
If the funds are found to have been amassed illegally, they can be returned to Ukraine after any criminal conviction of Yanukovych and his entourage, it said.
Austria's Foreign Ministry said it was also freezing the accounts of 18 Ukrainian nationals at the request of Ukraine's new authorities, with "the backdrop of possible human rights abuses during the bloody power struggle in Ukraine and because of possible corruption."
Voting out the Premier
In Crimea, government administration buildings in Simferopol remained under siege Friday, a day after armed men stormed in and planted Russia's flag atop the parliament building.
On Thursday, in a vote of no confidence, pro-Russian members of the Crimean parliament dismissed the government of Premier Anatolii Mohyliov, who was perceived as pro-Kiev.
The lawmakers also scheduled a referendum on greater autonomy for the region within Ukrainian territory.
The date of the referendum? May 25 -- the day Ukraine is scheduled to hold its presidential and local elections.
Amid the dizzying developments, Kiev has gone about its business of governing.
On Thursday, lawmakers approved opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk as Prime Minister. He made clear that he believes the country's future rests in closer ties to Europe, not Russia.
As tensions simmered in Crimea, Russia alarmed some observers by announcing surprise military exercises Wednesday in its western and central areas.
Those continue Friday, Russia's Defense Ministry said, with more than 80 combat helicopters set to take to the skies in Russia's Western Military District, which borders Ukraine, for search and rescue drills.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned Thursday against provocations by any party.
"I'm closely watching Russia's military exercises along the Ukrainian border," he said. "I expect Russia to be transparent about these activities, and I urge them not to take any steps that could be misinterpreted or lead to miscalculations during a very delicate time."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had told him the snap military exercises were prescheduled and unrelated to the events in Ukraine.
He also said Lavrov had reaffirmed to him a commitment that Russia would "respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine."
Kerry said that was a commitment that Russian President Vladimir Putin made to President Barack Obama when they spoke last week.
Crimea was handed to Ukraine by the Soviet Union in 1954. Just over half its population is ethnic Russian, while about a quarter are Ukrainians and a little more than 10% are Crimean Tatars, a predominantly Muslim group oppressed under former Soviet leader Josef Stalin.
CNN's Victoria Eastwood and Diana Magnay reported from Simferopol, Ingrid Formanek from Kiev and Fred Pleitgen from Moscow. Laura Smith-Spark wrote from London. Journalist Azad Safarov and CNN's Alla Eshchenko contributed to this report.