Stand by your man: Ukraine’s fugitive President Viktor Yanukovych, seen here with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2013, has resurfaced in Moscow.
Armed men sympathetic to the Russians seized an airport in Ukraine’s strategic Crimea early Friday as tensions in the region escalated.
The 50 or so men who stormed the Simferopol Airport wore “Russian Navy ensigns” insignia and may have been associated with the dozens of pro-Russia gunmen who seized control of government buildings in the region’s capital on Thursday and raised the Russian flag.
The airport was reportedly operating normally after the peaceful takeover.
The tumultuous changes came as Ukraine’s fugitive president, Viktor Yanukovych, resurfaced in Russia on Thursday, bemoaning that his country was in the hands of extremists and insisting he is still its lawful ruler.
The latest developments heightened fears of a civil war as the 150,000 Russian soldiers conducted military exercises and fighter jets screamed along the border.
“On the streets of many cities of our country, extremism thrives. Threats of bodily harm are thrown at me and my collaborators. I’m forced to ask the Russian authorities to ensure my personal security against the actions of extremists,” Yanukovych reportedly said from a Kremlin sanitarium outside Moscow.
It was the first comments from the leader, who has been granted shelter by Russian authorities. Angry protestors accused Yanukovych of being a puppet of Russian President Vladimir Putin, reneging on a pledge to boost Ukraine’s ties to Europe at his behest.
A poster of fugitive Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych is fixed onto a barricade in central Kiev. On Thursday he claimed from Moscow that he remains the rightful ruler of Ukraine and bemoaned that it was in the hands of ‘extremists.’
The disgraced president, ousted following three months of protests in Kiev, lauded the southeast of Ukraine and Crimea for not aligning itself with other parts of the country where “leaders are chosen by the crowd.”
As Yanukovich came out of hiding, there was grim financial news coming out of Kiev. Ukraine’s new prime minister, Arseny Yatseniuk, told parliament Thursday that some $ 37 billion in loans had gone missing sometime during the disgraced Yanukovich’s three year rule.
The dire financial situation in the country will require urgently needed loans from the International Monetary Fund.
“I want to report to you — the state treasury has been robbed and is empty,” Yatseniuk said before the national assembly voted him in as head of a national unity government.
“Thirty-seven billion dollars of credit received have disappeared in an unknown direction … (and) the sum of 70 billion dollars was paid out of Ukraine’s financial system into off-shore accounts.”
Known for his lavish lifestyle during his time in power, three Russian news agencies quoted an unnamed Russian official confirming Yanukovych’s request for protection “was satisfied on the territory of Russia.”
Yanukovych is reportedly staying at Barvikha sanitarium outside of Moscow, which is controlled by the Kremlin.
Russian officials wouldn’t confirm whether Yanukovych was staying in the Barvikha sanitarium. Security was also especially tight outside the five-star Ukraina Hotel overlooking the Moskva River in Moscow.
For the moment, the turmoil of Kiev left more than 80 people dead has moved to Crimea.
Gunmen armed with rocket-propelled grenades, sniper rifles and other weapons stormed the local parliament building in Simferopol, the Crimean regional capital and hoisted the Russian flag.
Witnesses said they wore unmarked camouflage uniforms.
The men did not immediately voice any demands and threw a flash grenade in response to a journalist’s questions.
They wore black-and-orange ribbons, a Russian symbol of the victory in World War II, and put up a sign reading “Crimea is Russia.”
A pro-Russia activist who said he and around 50 to 60 other activists had camped outside of the local parliament building when the armed men wearing flak jackets took over.
Ukrainian and Russian supporters clashed near the parliament building in Simferopol, Crimea.
“At 5 o’clock unknown men turned up and went to the building. They got into the courtyard and put everyone on the ground,” said the activist, who only gave his name as Maxim.
“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.”
Meanwhile video from the Crimean capital showed convoys from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet patrolling beyond designated military zones, adding to an ominous aura of separatist rebellion.
Secretary of State Kerry sought to allay concerns Saturdays, saying he’d spoken to his Russian counterpart and been assured that they will respect Ukraine’s sovereignty.
“Everybody needs to step back and avoid provocations,” Kerry said.
Three months of protests in the heart of Kiev left over 80 dead and culminated in Yanukovych’s ouster.
Crimean Prime Minister Anatoly Mogilyev said he tried to negotiate with the gunmen but was told, “They were not authorized to negotiate and present demands.”
Oleksandr Turchynov, who stepped in as Ukraine’s acting president, said the captured building amounted to a “crime against the government and that he had ordered “the military to use all methods necessary to protect the citizens, punish the criminals and to free the buildings.”
Crimea has long been a peninsula of strategic importance and was part of the Soviet Union.
From 1853-1856, it was the site of the Crimean War which pitted England, France and the Ottoman Empire against tsarist Russia. Russia lost.
The most recent insurrection isn’t the only grave problem facing Ukraine: The country is also on the verge of financial collapse.
Ukraine’s currency, the hryvnia, dropped further to a new record low of 11.25 to the U.S. dollar.
The finance ministry has pegged the country’s needs at $ 35 billion dollars for this year and next to pay salaries and debts and cover the large budget deficit.
With News Wire Services
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