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Top Russian lawmaker says Russia will protect its compatriots in Ukraine if they are attacked

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SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine - A senior Russian lawmaker said Tuesday that Russia will protect its compatriots in Ukraine if their lives are in danger.

Tuesday's statement by Leonid Slutsky, who heads a parliamentary committee in charge of relations with other ex-Soviet republics, reflected tensions in Ukraine's Crimea, a mostly Russian-speaking Black Sea peninsula that hosts a major Russian naval base.

"If lives and health of our compatriots are in danger, we won't stay aside," Slutsky said at a meeting with activists in Simferopol, the regional capital of the Crimea. He refused to elaborate.

Slutsky also said that fugitive President Viktor Yanukovych remains the only legitimate leader of Ukraine, adding that there is a "big question mark" over the legitimacy of the decisions made by the Ukrainian parliament since he left the seat of power.

Slutsky promised that the Russian parliament is considering a bill that would offer residents of the Crimea and other people in Ukraine a quick way of getting Russian citizenship.

Slutsky's statements followed more cautious comments earlier Tuesday by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who said that Moscow has no intention of interfering in Ukraine's domestic affairs and warned the West against trying to turn the situation there to its advantage.

Lavrov also criticized the new authorities who assumed control after Russia-backed Yanukovych fled, accusing them of failure to rein in radical groups.

Some in the Crimea have voiced fears that radical nationalists, who played a prominent role in the protests in Kyiv that toppled Yanukovych, could launch forays into the region to punish it for its pro-Russia stance.

Lavrov tapped into such fears, saying "radicals are threatening to march on those regions which have voiced disagreement with the opposition's methods."

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