Tensions rise in the Crimea as Ukraine begins to disintegrate
Armed men broke into the government building and parliament in the Crimea on Thursday and proceeded to run up the Russian flag.
The new Ukrainian government in Kiev begged Russia to keep its troops in the Crimea out of the civil conflict:
"I am appealing to the military leadership of the Russian Black Sea fleet," said Olexander Turchinov, acting president since the removal of Viktor Yanukovich last weekend.
"Any military movements, the more so if they are with weapons, beyond the boundaries of this territory (the base) will be seen by us as military aggression," he said.
Ukraine's Foreign Ministry also summoned Russia's acting envoy in Kiev for immediate consultations.
Crimea, the only Ukrainian region with an ethnic Russian majority, is the last big bastion of opposition to the new leadership in Kiev following Yanukovich's ouster and provides a base there for the Russian Black Sea fleet.
The new twist in three months of turmoil in Ukraine in which about 100 people were killed and Yanukovich was chased from power sent the Ukrainian hryvnia UAH= tumbling to a new record low against the dollar.
The currency was trading at 11.0 to the dollar on the Reuters dealing platform UAH=d1, and forward markets were pricing it to trade weaker at 11.65 per dollar in six months' time UAH6MNDFOR=.
In Kiev, Ukraine's new rulers though pressed ahead with efforts to restore stability to the divided country, approving formation of a national coalition government with former economy minister Arseny Yatseniuk as its proposed head.
Yatseniuk told parliament that Yanukovich had driven the country to the brink of economic and political collapse.
And he warned of growing threats to the territorial integrity of Ukraine. "We must preserve the integrity of the Ukrainian state which will one day become a member of the European Union," he said.
Yanukovich said on Thursday he was still president of Ukraine and warned its "illegitimate" rulers that people in the southeastern and southern regions would never accept mob rule.
In a statement sent to Russian news agencies from an unknown location, Yanukovich railed against the "extremists" who had stolen power in Ukraine, threatened violence against himself and his closest aides and passed "illegal" laws.
The new government dare not crackdown on the protestors. It's exactly what Vladimir Putin wants - an excuse to sever the strategically vital Crimea from the rest of the Ukraine.
Just who was it that occupied the government buildings?
It was not immediately known who was occupying the buildings in the regional capital Simferopol and they issued no demands, but witnesses said they spoke Russian and appeared to be ethnic Russian separatists.
Interfax news agency quoted a witness as saying there were about 60 people inside and they had many weapons. It said no one had been hurt when the buildings were seized in the early hours by Russian speakers in uniforms that did not carry identification markings.
"We were building barricades in the night to protect parliament. Then this young Russian guy came up with a pistol ... we all lay down, some more ran up, there was some shooting and around 50 went in through the window," Leonid Khazanov, an ethnic Russian, told Reuters.
"They're still there ... Then the police came, they seemed scared. I asked them (the armed men) what they wanted, and they said 'To make our own decisions, not to have Kiev telling us what to do'," said Khazanov.
Could be Russian special forces or some kind of ethnic Russian militia. If the latter, they are certainly well trained and well organized for a militia. If the former, Putin isn't wasting any time in protecting Russian interests.
I certainly hope this is not the beginning of the disintegration of the Ukraine. Such a turn of events would be very destablizing and might not end up quite the way that Putin envisions.