Yanukovich: I will ‘fight for the future of Ukraine’

Ousted president makes first public remarks as armed men seize control of two airports in Crimea

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich on Friday made his first public address since his ouster from office and flight from Kiev last week.
Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

Ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich on Friday spoke in Russia for the first time since fleeing Kiev, as armed men wearing military uniforms took control of two airports in the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, further complicating the interim government’s ability to rule. 

Appearing in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, Yanukovich said that he was forced to leave the country but that "no one has removed me" from office. He also announced his intention to "fight for the future of Ukraine."

Referring to protesters that led to his downfall as "nationalists" and "fascists," he called the ongoing political crisis in Ukraine an "irresponsible policy of the West."

Russian President Vladimir Putin has not said whether Moscow will harbor the former leader, who is wanted by Ukraine's new government for "mass murder" after the deaths of protesters in Kiev last week.

As Yanukovich spoke, men dressed in full battle gear and carrying assault rifles and machine guns were moving freely about two airports in Crimea.

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov wrote in a Facebook post that the Belbek international airport in Sevastopol was blocked by military units of the Russian navy.

"I can only describe this as a military invasion and occupation," Avakov said Friday.

But Russia's Black Sea fleet, which is based in the region, denied its forces were involved in seizing one of the airports, Interfax news agency reported.

"No Black Sea Fleet units have moved toward (the airport), let alone taking any part in blockading it," Interfax quoted a spokesman for the fleet as saying.

Witnesses at the second airport in Simferopol described the armed group as Crimean militiamen.

A man called Vladimir, who said he was a volunteer helping the group, said, "I'm with the People's Militia of Crimea. We're simple people, volunteers ... We're here at the airport to maintain order. We'll meet the planes with a nice smile. The airport is working as normal."

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Amid confusion over the identity of the armed men in Crimea, acting Ukrainian President Oleksander Turchinov called an emergency session of his security chiefs, while parliament urged Moscow to halt any action that might encourage separatism and asked the U.N. Security Council to discuss the matter.

The parliament adopted an appeal for Russia to "stop moves that show signs of undermining national sovereignty and territorial integrity ... (and) reject support for separatism in Ukraine, of any form."

Kiev's new rulers have said any movement by Russian forces beyond the Black Sea fleet base in Sevastopol would be tantamount to aggression.

The United States has asked Russia to show in the next few days that it is sincere about a promise not to intervene in Ukraine, saying using force would be a grave mistake.

"We believe that everybody now needs to take a step back and avoid any kind of provocations," Secretary of State John Kerry told a joint news conference with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. "We want to see in the next days ahead that the choices Russia makes conform to this affirmation we received today."

On Thursday, gunmen wearing unmarked camouflage uniforms erected a sign reading "Crimea is Russia" in Simferopol, as Ukraine's interim prime minister declared the Black Sea territory "has been and will be a part of Ukraine."

The events in Crimea have heightened tensions with neighboring Russia, which dispatched fighter jets Thursday to patrol borders and initiated drills by some 150,000 troops — almost all of its force in the western part of the country — in a show suggesting its determination to keep Ukraine within its sphere of influence.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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