SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine - Armed men took control of two airports in the Crimea region on Friday in what Ukraine's new leadership described as an invasion and occupation by Moscow's forces, and ousted President Viktor Yanukovich reappeared in Russia after a week on the run.
More than 10 Russian military helicopters flew into Ukrainian airspace on Friday over Crimea, Kiev's border guard service said, accusing Russian servicemen of blockading one of its units in the port city of Sevastopol, where part of Moscow's Black Sea fleet is based.
- Ukraine: 25 killed, 241 injured in Kiev clashes
- Ukrainian Jews seek urgent help from Israel
- Ukraine's freed Tymoshenko: 'A dictatorship has ended'
Ukraine's State Border Guard Service said about 30 Russian paratroopers from the 810th brigade of Russia's Black Sea Fleet had taken up position outside the Ukrainian Coast Guard base in the Sevastopol area. It said the paratroopers said they were there to prevent any weapons at the base from being seized by extremists.
Russia's foreign and defense ministries had no comment.
The fleet denied its forces were involved in seizing one of the airports, Interfax news agency reported, while a supporter described the armed group at the other site merely as Crimean militiamen.
Any Russian military incursion in Crimea would dramatically raise the stakes in Ukraine's conflict, which saw the pro-Russian president flee last weekend after three months of anti-government protests. Moscow has vowed to protect Russian-speaking Ukrainians in Crimea, where it has a major naval base, and Ukraine and the West have warned Russia to stay away.
While it has said it will not intervene by force, Russia's rhetoric since the removal of Yanukovich a week ago has echoed the run-up to its invasion of Georgia in 2008.
Ukraine's top security official, Andriy Paruby, said the armed men were taking their orders from the top in Russia. "These are separate groups ... commanded by the Kremlin," Paruby, secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, told a televised briefing in Kiev.
He also insisted the two airports are under Ukrainian control despite attempts by gunmen to "seize" them, according to the Interfax news agency.
Parubiy said the gunmen had set up checkpoints outside the airports. "But de-facto the airports are controlled by the law enforcement bodies of Ukraine."One of the options being considered was declaring a state of emergency in Crimea, he added.
In Kiev, Ukraine's parliament adopted a resolution demanding that Russia halt steps it says are aimed against Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and called for a UN Security Council meeting on the crisis.
The foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland, who negotiated a peace deal to end violence in Kiev earlier this month, urged all parties to refrain from any action endangering Ukraine's territorial integrity.
Russia announced war games on Wednesday near the Ukrainian border, involving 150,000 troops on high alert, although US Secretary of State John Kerry said his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, had told him the exercises were pre-planned.
Yanukovich - who is wanted by the new government for mass murder after the deaths of protesters in Kiev last week - resurfaced in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don on Friday.
Addressing a news conference, he denied he had run away. Yanukovich said he had been forced to leave Kiev due to threats, and denounced "lawlessness, terror, anarchy and chaos" in the country.
Switzerland, Austria and Liechtenstein moved on Friday to freeze assets and bank accounts of up to 20 Ukrainians including Yanukovich and his son.
Ukraine's new rulers have said loans worth $37 billion went missing from state accounts during Yanukovich's three years in power - a jaw-dropping sum even for a population now used to tales of his extravagance and lavish lifestyle, including his opulent residence outside Kiev.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov accused Russian naval forces of taking over a military airport near the port of Sevastopol, where the Black Sea fleet has its base, and other Russian forces of seizing Simferopol's civilian international airport.
"I consider what has happened to be an armed invasion and occupation in violation of all international agreements and norms," Avakov said on his Facebook page, describing it as a "provocation" and calling for talks.
This met with a Russian naval denial of involvement in the military airport action. "No Black Sea Fleet units have moved toward (the airport), let alone taking any part in blockading it," Interfax quoted a spokesman for the fleet as saying.
Near the military airport, half a dozen men in camouflage uniforms with automatic rifles were blocking the road using a truck with no license plates. Reporters were kept from approaching them by volunteer militia, who formed a second road block about 150 meters away.
"Of course they are Russian," said Maxim Lovinetsky, 23, one of the volunteers who manned the post. "They came last night."
The United States has told Russia to show in the next few days that it is sincere about a promise not to intervene in Ukraine, saying using force would be a grave mistake.
The Kremlin said Putin had ordered his government to continue talks with Ukraine on economic and trade relations and to consult foreign partners including the International Monetary Fund on financial aid.
Yanukovich provoked protests in Ukraine in November by backing out of plans to sign landmark deals with the European Union and instead saying Kiev would seek closer economic and trade ties with its former Soviet master Russia.
In December, Putin promised Yanukovich a $15 billion bailout, but Russia has put the deal on hold after releasing an initial installment, saying it wants more clarity about the new government and its policies.
Kiev's new rulers have said any movement by Russian forces beyond the base in Sevastopol would be tantamount to aggression. But they face a major challenge in Crimea which was Russian territory until it was transferred to Ukraine in 1954, during the Soviet era. Separatism there has often flared up at times of tension between Moscow and Kiev.
Unidentified gunmen seized the Crimean parliament and raised a Russian flag on Thursday. The gunmen issued no demands and police were casually guarding the building.
Armed men took control of Simferopol airport overnight and were patrolling its grounds on Friday morning.
A Reuters eyewitness at the scene said the men, dressed in full battle gear and carrying assault rifles and machine guns, were moving freely in and out of the control tower.
The regional parliament in Crimea managed to hold a session inside the building on Thursday despite the siege, where it voted to stage a referendum on "sovereignty" for Crimea.
Russia's flag still flew from its roof, and lights were on in the windows of its top floor. It was not clear whether the armed men were still inside.