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Ukraine accuses Russia of 'military invasion' as gunmen seize airports

 

Armed forces were blocking the two main airports in the strategic peninsula of Crimea on Friday in what Ukraine's new government described as a takeover by Russian forces, as the country asked the U.N. Security Council to intervene in the escalating conflict.

No violence was reported, and flights continued to operate at the airport serving Simferopol, the regional capital. It was not immediately clear whether the airport in Sevastopol, owned by the Ukrainian defense ministry, was open but there are no scheduled services to the facility.

Russia's Black Sea fleet, which is based in the area, denied its forces were involved in seizing one of the airports, Interfax news agency reported, according to Reuters

The Russian foreign ministry refused a request for comment by The Associated Press while a spokesman for the Russian defense ministry also had no comment.

Ukraine's new Interior Minister Arsen Avakov wrote in a Facebook post that the Belbek international airport in Sevastopol was blocked by military units of the Russian navy.

"I can only describe this as a military invasion and occupation," Avakov said.

But Russia's Black Sea fleet issued a prompt denial of involvement in the activity, saying, "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.  

Early on Friday, dozens of armed men in military uniforms without markings were seen patrolling the airport in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea.

At Simferopol airport, an Associated Press photographer saw military men armed with assault rifles Friday morning patrolling the airport. The men were wearing uniforms without any insignia. Most refused to talk to journalists. One of them, who identified himself only as Vladimir, said they were part of a "self-defense unit" that was making sure that no "fascists" would arrive from Kiev or elsewhere.

A Reuters eyewitness at the scene said the men were dressed in full battle gear and carrying assault rifles and machine guns. They were reportedly moving freely in an out of a control tower.

On Thursday, masked gunmen with rocket-propelled grenades and sniper rifles seized the parliament and government offices in Simferopol and raised the Russian flag over the parliament building. 

Ukrainian officials sharply denounced the move. Ukrainian police cordoned off the area, but didn't confront the gunmen.

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 U.N. Security Council meeting on the crisis. 

The events in the Crimea region have heightened tensions with neighboring Russia. Moscow scrambled fighter jets on Thursday to patrol borders in the first stirrings of a potentially dangerous confrontation reminiscent of Cold War brinksmanship.

Russia also has granted shelter to Ukraine's fugitive president, Viktor Yanukovych, state media reported, after recent deadly protests in Kiev swept in a new government.

Yanukovych has a news conference scheduled Friday in Russia's south near the Ukrainian border. He has not been seen publicly since Saturday, and he declared Thursday in a statement that he remains Ukraine's legitimate president. 

Ukraine's Prosecutor General said in a statement Friday it is preparing to seek extradition of Yanukovych, who is wanted on suspicion of mass murder in last week's violent clashes between protesters and police, in which more than 80 people were killed.

Ukraine's parliament on Thursday elected a new government led by a pro-Western technocrat who promptly pledged to prevent any national break-up.

Moscow has been sending mixed signals about Ukraine but pledged to respect its territorial integrity. Russian President Vladimir Putin has long dreamed of pulling Ukraine, a country of 46 million people considered the cradle of Russian civilization, closer into Moscow's orbit.

Ukraine's population is divided in loyalties between Russia and the West. Crimea, which was seized by Russian forces in the 18th century under Catherine the Great, was once the crown jewel in Russian and then Soviet empires.

It became part of Ukraine in 1954 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred jurisdiction from Russia, a move that was a mere formality until the 1991 Soviet collapse meant Crimea landed in an independent Ukraine.

In a bid to shore up Ukraine's fledgling administration, the International Monetary Fund has said it is "ready to respond" to Ukraine's bid for financial assistance. The European Union is also considering emergency loans for a country that is the chief conduit of Russian natural gas to western Europe.

Ukraine's finance ministry has said it needs $35 billion over the next two years to avoid default.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.