Armed men seize two airports in Ukraine's Crimea as situation escalates

SIMFEROPOL (REUTERS) - Armed men took control of two airports in the Crimea region on Friday in what the new Ukrainian leadership described as an invasion by Moscow's forces, and ousted President Viktor Yanukovych surfaced in Russia after a week on the run.

Mr Yanukovych said Russia should use all means at its disposal to stop the chaos in Ukraine as tension rose on the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, the only region with an ethnic Russian majority and the last major bastion of resistance to the overthrow of the Moscow-backed leader.

Acting President Oleksander Turchinov accused Russia of open aggression and said Moscow was following a scenario simliar to the one before it went to war with fellow former Soviet republic Georgia in 2008.

A day after gunmen seized the Ukrainian parliament and raised the Russian flag, a representative of Turchinov in Crimea said 13 Russian aircraft had landed on the Black Sea peninsula with 150 personnel on board each one. More than 10 Russian military helicopters flew over Crimea and Russian servicemen blockaded a unit of the Ukrainian border guard in the port city of Sevastopol, the guard said.

The fleet denied its forces were involved in seizing the military airport near Sevastopol, where armed men later also occupied the runway, and a supporter described the armed group at the civilian international airport in Simferopol as Crimean militiamen. Ukraine's commercial airline said later that it had been refused entry into Crimean airspace.

Moscow has promised to defend the interests of its citizens in Ukraine. It has said it will not intervene by force, but its rhetoric since the removal of Yanukovych a week ago has echoed the run-up to its invasion of Georgia.

Any armed confrontation in Crimea would have major global repercussions, with Russia and the West already at odds over the change of power in Ukraine and supporting opposite sides in Syria's civil war. They have, however, pledged to cooperate to prop up Ukraine's faltering economy.

The UN Security Council called an emergency session for later on Friday at the request of Ukraine's new leaders, who warned the country's territorial intergrity was threatened. Mr Turchinov said he would not give in to"provocations".

Ukraine's top security official, Andriy Paruby, said the armed men in Crimea were taking their orders from the top in Russia. "These are separate groups ... commanded by the Kremlin," Mr Paruby, secretary of the National Security and Defence Council, told a televised briefing in Kiev.

One of the options being considered was declaring a state of emergency in Crimea, he added.

The United States warned all parties not to inflame the situation and said it had raised the issue of the reported armed takeovers of the airports with Russia. US officials were seeking clarification of the origin of the armed men.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said Moscow, which put 150,000 troops on high alert on Wednesday for war games near Ukraine's border, had told him it had no intention of violating Ukraine's sovereignty.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Ukraine's new leaders should implement a political deal brokered by the European Union before Yanukovych's ouster.

The Russian Foreign ministry said on its Facebook page that Russia's Consulate General in Crimea would hand out Russian pasports to the servicemen of Ukraine's now-disbanded Berkut riot police. Protestors had accused the Berkut of firing the live bullets that killed dozens of protesters in Kiev.

Mr Yanukovych - who is wanted by the new, pro-Europe government for mass murder after the protesters' deaths - reappeared in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. The new authorities in Kiev started moves to seek his extradition.

Switzerland, Austria and Liechtenstein moved to freeze assets and bank accounts of up to 20 Ukrainians including Yanukovych and his son.

Mr Yanukovych said talk of foreign bank accounts was "empty chatter".

Ukraine's new rulers have said loans worth US$37 billion went missing from state accounts during Yanukovych's three years in power - a jaw-dropping sum even for a population now used to tales of a lavish lifestyle and opulent residence outside Kiev.

The new Ukrainian leadership has said the country needs almost as much as that - $35 billion (S$46 billion) - over the next two years to stave off bankruptcy. It said on Friday it hoped to get financial aid soon and was prepared to fulfil the reform criteria of the International Monetary Fund to get it.

IMF chief Christine Lagarde said she did not see anything on the economic front worthy of panic and urged the leadership to refrain from throwing numbers about she said were meaningless until properly assessed.