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Armed Men Seize Crimea Airports in Ukraine

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Ukraine01d_image_512x288_3Ousted president expected to address press conference as pro-Russia armed men take over two airports in southeast.
Two airports in Ukraine’s southeastern Crimea region have been seized by pro-Russian armed men who had also taken over government buildings in the region in a direct challenge to authorities in the capital Kiev following president Viktor Yanukovich’s ouster.
Al Jazeera’s Laurence Lee, reporting from Crimea, said on Friday that the main airport in the city of Simferopol was operating normally and the armed men who had taken over the facility were seen departing.
At least 40 pro-Moscow armed men had earlier annexed a number of government buildings in Crimea, a region with a Russian ethnic majority.

“I can see four trucks, which I assume are filled with men, leaving the airport,” Lee said, adding that at least nine armed men, dressed in combat fatigues, were still inside the airport.

He added that air traffic was kept “on time and schedule, some way or another.”

Another Al Jazeera correspondent, Robin Forestier-Walker said “the reason for coming here may have been to assess whether the new administration in Kiev has sent down any military aircraft or troops to Simferapool”.

“We don’t know who they are, or where they are from,” he said, describing the situation as “worrying.”

The armed men also seized the Belbek military airport in the region.

The airport takeovers prompted the Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov to accuse Russia of carrying out an “armed invasion” in Crimea. The accusation was denied, however, by the Russian naval fleet, which said its forces were not involved in the seizing or blocking of the Belbek military airport, according to Interfax news agency.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s pro-Moscow ousted president is expected to hold his first public appearance since his disappearance last week.

Yanukovich has apparently been emboldened by the takeover of government buildings by the armed groups.

Yanukovich – who fled Kiev last week following weeks of deadly protests – is due to give a press conference in Russia’s southwestern city of Rostov-on-Don on Friday at 1300 GMT, the Agence-France Presse reported citing Moscow’s three main news agencies.

Autonomous region
Oleksander Turchynov, the acting Ukraine president who has replaced Yanukovich, told parliament he had ordered troops and police to take “all measures” needed to protect Ukrainian citizens after the apparent pro-Russian takeover of buildings.

Turchynov’s statement also gave warning that any movement by Russian military forces in the Crimean Black Sea port of Sevastopol, would be considered a “military aggression”.

The area has been closed off “to prevent bloodshed”, according to news agency AFP.
“Measures have been taken to counter extremist actions and not allow the situation to escalate into an armed confrontation in the centre of the city,” Arsen Avakov, Ukraine interior minister, said.

Meanwhile, Crimea’s autonomous parliament has set a referendum on the region’s status on May 25, according to AFP, which is the same day during which the new government in Kiev is set to hold fresh presidential elections.

The autonomous government of Crimea still considers Yanukovich to be Ukraine’s president.

Vladimir Konstantinov, speaker of Crimea’s parliament, said on Thursday the autonomous republic appointed a new prime minister, Sergei Aksenov, with Yanukovich’s approval.

“There are political factions, pro-Russian groups, who want Crimea to break away, and have less to do with the Kiev,” Al Jazeera’s Forestier-Walker said. “But there are also those who want to stay firmly part of Ukraine, in particular the ethnic Tartar community, who want to see themselves part of Europe.”

Escalating tensions
Chuck Hagel, US defence secretary, warned of escalation of tension between Ukraine and Russia.

Speaking at a NATO meeting in Brussels, he said that the US was watching Russian military movements closely, and urged the country not to take any action on Ukraine that could be misinterpreted “at a time of great tension”.

David Cameron, UK prime minister, also asked Russia on Thursday to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty.

“Every country should respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. Russia has made that commitment and it’s important that Russia keeps its word,” he said.

For his part, John Kerry, the US secretary of state, said he had received assurances from his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, who “reaffirmed President Putin’s statement that Russia will respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

“We believe that everybody now needs to step back and avoid any kind of provocation.”

Ukraine’s interim government has issued an arrest warrant for Yanukovich, accusing him of being responsible for the deaths of at least 70 protesters on February 21 protests in Kiev.

The parliament had voted on Tuesday to send Yanukovich, if captured, to stand trial for “serious crimes” at the International Criminal Court.

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