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Ukraine, West Warn Russia on Crimea Stand-off

by VOA News, RFE/RL February 27, 2014

Armed men seized the parliament in Ukraine's Crimea region on Thursday and raised the Russian flag, sounding alarm bells in Kyiv and the West, and prompting calls for Russia not to escalate tensions in Ukraine.

Events in Crimea come on the heels of three months of anti-government protests in Ukraine that led to the ouster last Saturday of Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovych and the approval today of a new government by the country's lawmakers.

Tensions in Ukraine have pinned pro-Western forces against some ethnic Russians in Crimea and other pockets in eastern and southern parts of the country. Crimea is the only region in Ukraine with an ethnic Russian majority and is home to Russia's Black Sea fleet, based in Sevastopol. Moscow leases the land from Kyiv.

Kyiv cautions Moscow

"I am appealing to the military leadership of the Russian Black Sea fleet," said Oleksandr Turchynov, Ukraine's acting president.

"Any military movements, the more so if they are with weapons, beyond the boundaries of this territory (the Russian naval base) will be seen by us as military aggression," he said, speaking a day after President Vladimir Putin ordered 150,000 troops on Russia's border with Ukraine on high alert.

Russia has expressed concern about the majority Russian-speaking population of Crimea following the ouster of president Yanukovych.

Amateur video Thursday showed a line of unidentified armored personnel carriers in the Simferopol region. The video could not be independently confirmed.

The Interfax news agency quoted witnesses as saying there were about 60 heavily armed people inside the occupied parliament building. They were desribed as Russian speakers in uniforms that did not carry identification markings.

US, NATO warnings

The White House warned Russia on Thursday to respect Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity and told Moscow to avoid "provocative" actions with regard to the crisis-hit country.

We strongly support Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty. We expect other nations to do the same," White House spokesman Jay Carney told a briefing. "We are closely watching Russia's military exercises along the Ukrainian border…[and] we expect Russia to be transparent about these activities and to avoid provocative actions," he added.

"We urge them not to take any steps that could be misinterpreted or lead to a miscalculation during a very delicate time," said Carney.

The White House's warning echoed those of other top U.S. officials, including U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry.

Separately, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen expressed concern about the latest events in Crimea.

"This morning's action by an armed group is dangerous and irresponsible. I urge Russia not to take any action that could escalate tension or create misunderstanding,' said he during a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission in Brussels.

He also stressed existing ties between NATO and Ukraine.

'Ukraine is and remains an important partner for NATO. NATO is and remains a friend of Ukraine. And a sovereign, independent and stable Ukraine, firmly committed to democracy and the rule of law, is and remains key to Euro-Atlantic security," said Fogh Rasmussen.

Russia's position

Russia said on Thursday that it is prepared to work together with the West on resolving the crisis in Ukraine but stressed that the interests of all Ukrainians must be taken into account and any agreements that are reached must be implemented.

After the ouster of president Viktor Yanukovych, Russia has accused Ukraine's new leaders of violating a Western-backed peace deal and of ignoring the interests of Ukrainians in Russian-speaking regions of the east and south.

Last week, Ukraine's opposition leaders had signed a deal with Yanukovych that demanded that he hold early presidential elections by December. Following the signing Yanukovych fled Kyiv. Russia has referred to his subsequent ouster by Ukraine's parliament as a 'coup.'

Today's developments in Crimea follow dueling rallies on Wednesdsay in Simferopol between pro-Moscow and pro-Kyiv activists.

New government in Kyiv

Meanwhile, Ukraine's parliament has approved a new cabinet on Thursday replacing that of ousted president Viktor Yanukovych.

The new government, comprising more than 20 ministers, is headed by Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a former foreign and economics minister.

The new cabinet gained the support of 331 lawmakers in the 450-seat chamber.

Addressing lawmakers, Yatsenyuk warned of 'unpopular' decisions ahead to tackle the country's economic crisis.

He vowed Ukraine will sign an Association Agreement with the European Union but also said Kyiv wanted a partnership with Russia. He further vowed that his government will preserve Ukraine's territorial integrity.

'We are committed to the territorial integrity and unity of my country,' Yatsenyuk said. 'And the new government will do everything and use all legal means to stabilize the situation in Crimea and to convince the entire world and all Ukrainian neighbors that Ukraine is a sovereign united country and no separatism is allowed.'

Economy in dire straits

Yatsenyuk said $70 billion in Ukrainian government money had been sent to offshore accounts over last three years of Yanukovych's rule, and that $37 billion of credit it had received has disappeared.

The fresh turmoil in Crimea also sent the Ukrainian hryvnia tumbling to a new record low of 11 to the dollar on the Reuters dealing platform.

The International Monetary Fund said it would send a team to Kyiv in the coming days.

Ukraine's new finance minister, Oleksandr Shlapak, said he hoped the IMF would work on an aid package of at least $15 billion. Ukraine says it needs $35 billion over the next two years to avoid bankruptcy.

The minister also said he expected the hryvnia to strengthen soon at around 10 to the dollar. It was trading at 8 to the dollar before the crisis.

Yanukovych to break silence?

Ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych plans to hold a news conference in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don on Friday at 5 p.m. (1300 GMT), Russian news agencies reported, citing people close to Yanukovych.

Yanukovych's exact whereabouts have been a matter of speculation since he fled the Ukrainian capital on Saturday, losing a bloody three-month standoff against opponents who led protests against him after he spurned deals with the European Union.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.

The three main Russian news agencies, state-run RIA and Itar-Tass as well as privately owned Interfax, all carried similar reports citing unnamed sources close to Yanukovych.

Earlier on Thursday, the same agencies carried a statement quoting Yanukovich as saying he was still president of Ukraine and railing against what he said were "extremists" who had stolen power.

Yanukovych, 63, is now wanted in Ukraine on charges of mass murder over the police shooting of demonstrators.

Russia has agreed to ensure the personal safety of Yanukovych, Russian news agencies quoted a source in the authorities as saying on Thursday.

'In connection with the appeal by president Yanukovych for his personal security to be guaranteed, I report that the request has been granted on the territory of the Russian Federation,'' the source was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.

Abuses under Yanukovych

Publishing its annual Human Rights Report Thursday, the U.S. State Department highlighted abuses it recorded in Ukraine in 2013 during Yanukovych's rule.

The survey singles out Ukraine's security forces for committing human rights abuses.

"[R]iot police used batons and other forms of physical force on November 30 to clear 300 hundred protesters from Kyiv's Independence Square… who had peacefully assembled to express dissatisfaction with the government."

The report also listed a host of other problems the U.S. identified in Ukraine.

"The most serious human rights problem during the year was increased government interference with, and pressure on, media outlets, including government tolerance of increased levels of violence toward journalists."

Other issues listed were intensified pressure on civil society, nongovernmental organizations and civic activists.

The report also notes that the government generally did not prosecute security officials who committed abuses, and that corruption and impunity were a problem throughout the government.

Some information for this report was provided by Elizabeth Arrott reporting from Ukraine, and Reuters

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