Ukraine’s parliament on Thursday appointed former Economy Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk as prime minister, a day after Ukraine’s temporary leaders named a ruling coalition that included established politicians and civilian activists. Yatsenyuk will lead Ukraine’s interim government, which will rule until presidential elections are held on May 25.
As parliament convened to formally approve the interim government on Thursday, armed men seized the regional government headquarters and parliament on Ukraine's Crimea peninsula and raised the Russian flag — a sign that the interim government’s first challenge could be to tackle rising separatism.
A Reuters correspondent on the scene in the Crimean capital, Simferopol, said the door of the parliament was blockaded from inside by tables and chairs.
Interfax news agency quoted a witness as saying there were about 60 people inside and that they had many weapons. It said no one had been hurt when the buildings were seized.
"I heard gunfire in the night, came down and saw lots of people going in. Some then left. I'm not sure how many are still in there," a 30-year-old man who gave his name only as Roman told Reuters.
Crimea, the only Ukrainian region with an ethnic Russian majority, is the last big bastion of opposition to the new political leadership in Kiev following the ouster of the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich as president on Saturday.
Yanukovich, meanwhile, was seen in a Moscow hotel and was staying in a Kremlin sanatorium just outside the city, according to the Russian news outlet RBK. He is wanted by Ukraine’s new authorities for murder in connection with the deaths of around 100 people during three months of political turmoil.
"I have to ask Russia to ensure my personal safety from extremists," Yanukovich said in a statement carried by three Russian news agencies on Thursday. Shortly afterward, the same news agencies quoted an unnamed Russian official saying that Yanukovich's request for protection "was satisfied on the territory of Russia."
Yanukovich said in the Thursday statement that he still considers himself to be the legitimate leader of Ukraine.
Yanukovich fled to Crimea from Ukraine's capital, Kiev, last week after being toppled by opposition forces. He left for Russia on board a frigate from the Crimean port of Sevastopol on Sunday, according to the Ukrainian news agency UNIAN, quoting sources at the Russian Black Sea navy base. The frigate came from Sochi, where it was deployed to secure the Olympics.
Ukraine's interim leaders have been voicing alarm over signs of separatism in Crimea. The seizure of the buildings was confirmed by the country's acting interior minister, Ukrainian television said, but he gave few details.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has ignored calls by some ethnic Russians in Crimea to reclaim the territory handed to then-Soviet Ukraine by Soviet communist leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. But he has repeatedly declared that Moscow will defend the interests of its citizens in Ukraine, and on Wednesday announced war games near the border involving 150,000 troops on high alert.
Oleksander Turchinov, Ukraine's acting president, warned Russia not to move personnel beyond areas permitted by treaty for those using its naval base.
"Any military movements, the more so if they are with weapons, beyond the boundaries of this territory will be seen by us as military aggression," he said Thursday.
The United States and its NATO allies have also warned Russia that any Russian military action would be a grave mistake.
U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, the commander of U.S. forces in Europe, told Reuters on Thursday that his forces were not preparing for a Russian intervention in Crimea.
"Right now we are not planning contingencies on how to respond here. What we are doing is supporting the peaceful resolution of this business," said Breedlove.
Russia said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had proposed cooperation with Moscow to resolve the Ukraine crisis during a telephone call with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday.
Ethnic Tatars who support Ukraine's new leaders and pro-Russia separatists confronted each other outside the regional parliament on Wednesday.
A local Tatar leader, Refat Chubarov, said on Facebook: "I have been told that the buildings of parliament and the council of ministers have been occupied by armed men in uniforms that do not bear any recognizable insignia."
With a part of Russia's Black Sea fleet based in the port of Sevastopol, Crimea has a heavy ethnic Russian presence, although many ethnic Ukrainians in other eastern areas speak Russian as their first language.
The Tatars, a Turkic ethnic group, were victimized by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in World War II and deported en masse to Soviet Central Asia in 1944 on suspicion of collaborating with Nazi Germany.
Tens of thousands of them returned to their homeland after Ukraine gained independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991.
Al Jazeera and Reuters