Russian soldiers have occupied two key airports in Ukraine’s restive pro-Russia region of Crimea, Ukraine’s acting interior minister said Friday.
Soldiers wearing camouflage and bearing automatic weapons took up positions at Belbek Airport in Sevastopol, home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, and at the airport in Simferopol, the region’s capital, Arsen Avakov said.
He said the soldiers’ uniforms bore no identifying marks “but they do not hide their affiliation with the Russian armed forces.”
A spokesperson for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet denied that soldiers from the base were involved in blocking the Sevastopol airport.
“This is an armed invasion and occupation,” Mr. Avakov said in a message posted on his Facebook page. “It is a direct provocation of armed bloodshed in the territory of a sovereign state.”
It isn’t clear whether the move constitutes the initial phase of a larger military action or if Russia was simply trying to forestall efforts by central Ukrainian authorities to exert greater control on the autonomous region.
A spokesperson for Russia’s Defense Ministry couldn’t immediately be reached.
At Belbek Airport, Mr. Avakov said armed military units connected to Russia’s fleet had blocked access to the terminal and that the airport was now closed. He said Ukrainian soldiers and border guards remained inside the airport and Interior Ministry troops had set up a perimeter around the airport, but there had been no conflict.
Russian news agency Interfax cited a spokesperson for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet as saying: “No divisions of the Black Sea Fleet are in the area of Belbek airport and are especially not blocking the airport…Given the volatile situation evolving in the area of the Black Sea Fleet in Crimea, as well as places where military personnel and their families reside, the base has strengthened its antiterrorism security.”
In Simferopol, Mr. Avakov said that around midnight, 100 people who identified themselves as a Cossacks—civilian Russian traditionalists who often work closely with police—tried to break through a fence onto the airport grounds, but were driven away by airport security.
Then, at 1:30 a.m., several trucks carrying more than 100 armed soldiers in unmarked camouflage uniforms arrived and took up positions inside the airport’s restaurant. When told by Ukrainian Interior Ministry troops that they had no right to be there, Mr. Avakov said the soldiers said they had been instructed not to negotiate. He said the Interior Ministry was reinforcing its units around the airport and that the situation was becoming “increasingly tense.”
Despite the standoff, he said Simferopol airport was operating normally.
The move comes a day after gunmen took control of the region’s parliament and executive buildings in Simferopol and replaced the Ukrainian flag with a Russian one.
The autonomous region of Crimea has emerged as the epicenter of resistance to the new leadership in Kiev, which has been trying to form a government following the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych on Saturday.
Mr. Yanukovych broke his silence Thursday, saying in a statement that he remains the country’s legitimate leader and that the actions of the parliament stripping his powers were illegal. He is scheduled to hold a news conference on Friday in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, just a few hundred miles across the Sea of Azov from Crimea.
The Crimean legislature has called a referendum on the region’s status for May 25, raising the prospect that Crimea, which until 1954 was part of Russia, might seek greater autonomy or even secede from Ukraine.
Ukraine’s Crimea region has become the flashpoint for a backlash against the pro-Western protesters that drove President Viktor Yanukovych from power.