SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine – Dozens of armed men in military uniforms seized an airport in the capital of Ukraine’s strategic Crimea region early Friday, a report said.
Witnesses told the Interfax news agency that the 50 or so men were wearing the same gear as the ones who seized government buildings in the city, Simferopol, on Thursday and raised the Russian flag.
The report said the men with “Russian Navy ensigns” first surrounded the Simferopol Airport’s domestic flights terminal.
The report could not be immediately confirmed.
The events in the Crimea region have heightened tensions with neighboring Russia, which scrambled fighter jets 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, after recent deadly protests in Kiev swept in a new government.
While the government in Kiev, led by a pro-Western technocrat, pledged to prevent any national breakup, there were mixed signals in Moscow. Russia pledged to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Yanukovych was said to be holed up in a luxury government retreat, with a news conference scheduled Friday near the Ukrainian border. He has not been seen publicly since Saturday.
On Thursday, as masked gunmen wearing unmarked camouflage uniforms erected a sign reading “Crimea is Russia” in Simferopol, Ukraine’s interim prime minister declared the Black Sea territory “has been and will be a part of Ukraine.”
The escalating conflict sent Ukraine’s finances plummeting further, prompting Western leaders to prepare an emergency financial package.
Yanukovych, whose abandonment of closer ties to Europe in favor of a bailout loan from Russia set off three months of protests, finally fled by helicopter last week as his allies deserted him. The humiliating exit was a severe blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had been celebrating his signature Olympics even as Ukraine’s drama came to a crisis. The Russian leader has long dreamed of pulling Ukraine – a country of 46 million people considered the cradle of Russian civilization – closer into Moscow’s orbit.
For Ukraine’s neighbors, the specter of Ukraine breaking up evoked memories of centuries of bloody conflict.
“Regional conflicts begin this way,” said Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, calling the confrontation “a very dangerous game.”
Russia’s dispatch of fighter jets Thursday to patrol borders and drills by some 150,000 Russian troops – almost the entirety of its force in the western part of the country – signaled strong determination not to lose Ukraine to the West.
The dramatic developments posed an immediate challenge to Ukraine’s new authorities as they named an interim government for the country, whose 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 only 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 the capital, Kiev, the new prime minister said Ukraine’s future lies in the European Union, but with friendly relations with Russia.
Arseniy Yatsenyuk, named Thursday in a boisterous parliamentary session, now faces the difficult task of restoring stability in a country that is not only deeply divided politically but on the verge of financial collapse. The 39-year-old served as economy minister, foreign minister and parliamentary speaker before Yanukovych took office in 2010, and is widely viewed as a technocratic reformer who enjoys the support of the U.S.
Shortly before the lawmakers chose him, Yatsenyuk insisted the country wouldn’t accept the secession of Crimea. The Black Sea territory, he declared, “has been and will be a part of Ukraine.”
In Simferopol, tensions soared Thursday when gunmen toting rocket-propelled grenades and sniper rifles raised the Russian flag over the local parliament building. They wore black and orange ribbons, a Russian symbol of victory in World War II.
A pro-Russian activist who gave only his first name, Maxim, said he and other activists were camped overnight outside the parliament when about 50 men wearing flak jackets and carrying rocket-propelled grenade launchers and sniper rifles took over the building.
“They were asking who we were. When we said we stand for the Russian language and Russia, they said: ‘Don’t be afraid. We’re with you.’ Then they began to storm the building, bringing down the doors,” he said. “They didn’t look like volunteers or amateurs; they were professionals. This was clearly a well-organized operation.”
“Who are they?” he added. “Nobody knows.”
Oleksandr Turchynov, who stepped in as acting president after Yanukovych’s flight, condemned the assault as a “crime against the government of Ukraine.” He warned that any move by Russian troops off of their base in Crimea “will be considered a military aggression.”
“I have given orders to the military to use all methods necessary to protect the citizens, punish the criminals, and to free the buildings,” he said.
Experts described a delicate situation in which one sudden move could lead to wider conflict.
“The main concern at this point is that Kiev might decide to intervene by sending law enforcement people to restore constitutional order,” said Dmitry Trenin, head of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “That is something that would lead to confrontation and drag the Russians in.”
In a bid to shore up Ukraine’s fledgling administration, the International Monetary Fund said it was “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.
IMF chief Christine Lagarde said in the organization’s first official statement on Ukraine’s crisis that it was in talks with its partners on “how best to help Ukraine at this critical moment in its history.” Ukraine’s finance ministry has said it needs $35 billion over the next two years to avoid default. Ukraine’s currency, the hryvnia, dropped to a new record low of 11.25 to the U.S. dollar, a sign of the country’s financial distress.
Western leaders lined up to support the new Ukrainian leadership, with the German and British leaders warning Russia not to interfere.
“Every country should respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Ukraine,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said after a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in London.
NATO defense ministers met in Brussels, and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel emerged appealing for calm.
“These are difficult times,” he said, “but these are times for cool, wise leadership on Russia’s side and everyone’s side.”
Yet the prospect of the West luring Ukraine into NATO is the very nightmare that Russia is desperately trying to avoid. Trenin of the Carnegie Center said a Ukraine-NATO courtship “would really raise the alarm levels in Moscow.”
Yanukovych declared Thursday in a statement that he remains Ukraine’s legitimate president. He was reportedly to hold a news conference Friday in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, not far from the Ukrainian border.
“I have to ask Russia to ensure my personal safety from extremists,” Yanukovych’s statement read, according to Russian news agencies. Shortly after, an unnamed Russian official was quoted as saying that Yanukovych’s request had been granted.