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Report: Armed men occupy airport in Ukraine's Crimea; Russian moves threaten confrontation

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Pro-Russian activists hold up Orthodox icons at a checkpoint outside the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Sevastopol in the Crimea, Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014. The banner reads

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Pro-Russian activists hold up Orthodox icons at a checkpoint outside the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Sevastopol in the Crimea, Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014. The banner reads "Banderlogs not pass!", a phrase based on a Hindi word for monkeys and impugning all anti-Yanukovic supporters as vacuous chattering people. Russia scrambled fighter jets to patrol its border, reportedly gave shelter to the country’s fugitive president and stood by as pro-Russian gunmen stormed offices of Ukraine’s strategic region, deepening the crisis for the new Ukrainian government even as it was being formed. (AP Photo/Andrew Lubimov)

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine - Dozens of armed men in Russian-marked military uniforms occupied an airport in the capital of Ukraine's strategic Crimea region early Friday, a report said, but a later report cited an airport official as saying the men apologized and left after finding no Ukrainian troops had landed.

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. A later Interfax report, datelined Moscow, quoted an airport representative as saying the men apologized and left and that the airport was operating normally.

A woman who answered the phone at the airport said "no comment," and the airport's website listed the morning's first flight, to Moscow, as boarding on schedule.

The events in the Crimea region have heightened tensions with neighbouring 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 Kyiv swept in a new government.

While the government in Kyiv, 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 favour 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 neighbours, the spectre 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 — signalled 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, Kyiv, 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 Kyiv 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 defence ministers met in Brussels, and U.S. Defence 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.

___

Associated Press writers Karl Ritter in Kyiv, Nataliya Vasilyeva and Laura Mills in Moscow and Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.


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