Simferopol (Ukraine) (AFP) – Ukrainian authorities said Friday they had regained control of two Crimean airports seized during an “armed invasion” by Russian forces that prompted the country’s new pro-EU leaders to appeal for protection from the West.
The spiraling tensions in a nation torn between the West and Russia are set to take another dramatic turn when ousted president Viktor Yanukovych briefs reporters in Russia on Friday after winning protection from Moscow.
The head of Ukraine’s security and defense council said Russian soldiers and local pro-Kremlin militia were responsible for the dawn raids on Crimea’s main airport and another base on the southwest of the peninsula where pro-Moscow sentiment runs high.
A spokesman for Russia’s Crimea-based Black Sea Fleet denied any involvement in the airport occupations. But Ukraine’s parliament immediately appealed to the U.S. and Britain to uphold a 1994 pact with Russia that guaranteed the country’s sovereignty in return for it giving up its Soviet nuclear arms.
Both lawmakers and UN Security Council chair Lithuania said they would also ask the world body to address the Crimea crisis at its next session — a request that would need to gain support from veto-wielding members such as Russia.
Interim president Oleksandr Turchynov meanwhile attempted to regain control over unraveling security in the vast nation of 46 million by sacking the armed forces chief appointed by Yanukovych at the height of deadly protests last week.
Western governments have been watching with increasing alarm as Kiev’s new rulers grapple with the dual threats of economic collapse and secession by Russian-speaking southern and eastern regions that had backed Yanukovych.
Russian President Vladimir Putin this week stoked concerns that Moscow might use its military might to sway the outcome of Ukraine’s three-month standoff by ordering snap combat drills near the border involving 150,000 troops and nearly 900 tanks.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry attempted to relieve diplomatic pressure in a crisis that has increasingly assumed Cold War overtones by announcing that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had assured him Moscow “will respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine”.
Putin also appeared to take a more conciliatory approach Thursday by vowing to work on improving trade ties and promising to support international efforts to provide Kiev with funds that could keep it from declaring a debt default as early as next week.
But tensions were soaring by the hour in Russian-speaking Crimea — a scenic Black Sea peninsula that has housed Kremlin navies for nearly 250 years and was handed to Ukraine as a symbolic gift by a Soviet leader in 1954.
Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council chief Andriy Parubiy told reporters that security forces had successfully repelled “an attempt to seize the airports” by Russian soldiers and local pro-Kremlin militias.