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Pro-Russian leader of Ukraine's Crimea claims control of military, police; asks Putin for help

  • Unidentified gunmen wearing camouflage uniforms block the road toward the military airport at the Black Sea port of Sevastopol in Crimea, Ukraine, Saturday, March 1, 2014. The pro-Russian prime minister of Ukraine's restive Crimea is claiming control of all military forces, police and other security services in the region. In a statement reported by local and Russian news agencies on Saturday, Sergei Aksenov declares that the armed forces, the police, the national security service and border guards will answer only to his orders. He says that any commanders who don't agree should leave their posts. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

    Unidentified gunmen wearing camouflage uniforms block the road toward the military airport at the Black Sea port of Sevastopol in Crimea, Ukraine, Saturday, March 1, 2014. The pro-Russian prime minister of Ukraine's restive Crimea is claiming control of all military forces, police and other security services in the region. In a statement reported by local and Russian news agencies on Saturday, Sergei Aksenov declares that the armed forces, the police, the national security service and border guards will answer only to his orders. He says that any commanders who don't agree should leave their posts. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)  (The Associated Press)

  • Map shows the Ukrainian Russian region with the latest news developements; 3c x 6 inches; 146 mm x 152 mm;

    Map shows the Ukrainian Russian region with the latest news developements; 3c x 6 inches; 146 mm x 152 mm;  (The Associated Press)

  • President Barack Obama speaks about Ukraine in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, Friday, Feb. 28, 2014. Obama's statement comes as his administration is expressing growing concern over Russian intentions in Ukraine. Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a blunt warning Friday to Moscow against military moves in the country's southern Crimea region that could further inflame tensions. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

    President Barack Obama speaks about Ukraine in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, Friday, Feb. 28, 2014. Obama's statement comes as his administration is expressing growing concern over Russian intentions in Ukraine. Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a blunt warning Friday to Moscow against military moves in the country's southern Crimea region that could further inflame tensions. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)  (The Associated Press)

The discord between Russia and Ukraine sharpened Saturday when the pro-Russian leader of Ukraine's Crimea region claimed control of the military and police and appealed to Russia's president for help in keeping peace there.

It was the latest escalation of tension between the two countries following the ouster of Ukraine's pro-Russian president last week by a protest movement aimed at turning Ukraine toward the European Union and away from Russia.

Armed men described as Russian troops took control of key airports and a communications center in Crimea on Friday. Ukraine has accused Russia of a "military invasion and occupation" — a claim that brought an alarming new dimension to the crisis, and raised fears that Moscow is moving to annex a strategic peninsula where Russia's Black Sea fleet is based.

Ukraine's population is divided in loyalties between Russia and Europe, with much of western Ukraine advocating closer ties with the European Union while eastern and southern regions look to Russia for support. Crimea is mainly Russian-speaking.

Crimean's prime minister, Sergei Aksenov, declared that the armed forces, the police, the national security service and border guards will answer only to his orders.

Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk opened a cabinet meeting in the capital, Kiev, by calling on Russia not to provoke discord in Crimea, a peninsula on the Black Sea.

"We call on the government and authorities of Russia to recall their forces, and to return them to their stations," Yatsenyuk was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency. "Russian partners, stop provoking civil and military resistance in Ukraine."

Crimea only became part of Ukraine in 1954 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred jurisdiction from Russia, a move that was a mere formality when both Ukraine and Russia were part of the Soviet Union. The Soviet breakup in 1991 meant Crimea landed in an independent Ukraine.

President Barack Obama warned Moscow on Friday "there will be costs" if it intervenes militarily.

Russia has taken a confrontational stance toward its southern neighbor after pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country. Yanukovych was voted out of office by parliament after weeks of protests ended in violence that left over 80 people dead.

Demonstrators sought his resignation after he backed out of signing an agreement to bring Ukraine closer to the European Union instead of Russia. Yanukovych took refuge in Russia and still says he's president.

Aksenov, the head of the main pro-Russia party on the peninsula, appealed to Putin "for assistance in guaranteeing peace and calmness on the territory of the autonomous republic of Crimea."

Aksenov was appointed by the Crimean parliament on Thursday after pro-Russia gunmen seized the building and as tensions soared over Crimea's resistance to the new authorities in Kiev, who took power last week.

Obama called on Russia to respect the independence and territory of Ukraine and not try to take advantage of its neighbor, which is undergoing political upheaval.

"Any violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity would be deeply destabilizing," Obama said.

Such action by Russia would not serve the interests of the Ukrainian people, Russia or Europe, Obama said, and would represent a "profound interference" in matters he said must be decided by the Ukrainian people.

"The United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine," he said.

He did not say what those costs might be.

At the United Nations, the Ukrainian ambassador, Yuriy Sergeyev, said Friday that Russian transport aircraft and 11 attack helicopters had arrived in Crimea illegally, and that Russian troops had taken control of two airports in Crimea.

He described the gunmen posted outside the two airports as Russian armed forces as well as "unspecified" units.

Russia kept silent on claims of military intervention, even as it maintained its hard-line stance on protecting ethnic Russians in Crimea.

Meanwhile, flights remained halted from Simferopol's airport. Dozens of armed men in military uniforms without markings patrolled the area. They didn't stop or search people leaving or entering the airport, and refused to talk to journalists.

One man who identified himself only as Vladimir said the men were part of the Crimean People's Brigade, which he described as a self-defense unit ensuring that no "radicals and fascists" arrive from other parts of Ukraine. There was no way to independently verify his account.

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McHugh reported from Kiev, Ukraine.