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Crisis In Ukraine: Gunmen At Airport; Yanukovych Vows To Return

NPR icon by Mark Memmott
David Mdzinarishvili

We'll be adding updates as the day continues.

The crisis in Ukraine took another ominous turn when gunmen in unmarked military uniforms on Friday took control of two airports on the Crimean peninsula — where the majority of people are ethnic Russians and many want to break away from the new government in Kiev.

There was no violence. No shots were fired. But Ukraine's new interior minister, Arsen Avakov, wrote on his Facebook page that "military units" from the Russian Navy fleet based at Crimea's Black Sea port of Sevastopol were at one of the airports. At the other airport, Avakov wrote, the men "[did] not hide their affiliation to the armed forces of the Russian Federation."

Avakov's claims were dismissed by Moscow. "Russia's Black Sea Fleet has denied that Russian servicemen are taking part," the BBC says.

In the midafternoon (early morning in the U.S.) there was also word from Reuters that "more than 10 Russian military helicopters flew from Russia into Ukrainian airspace over the Crimea region on Friday."

Then, as afternoon turned toward evening, The Associated Press wrote that Ukraine's State Border Guard said a Ukrainian Coast Guard base on Crimea had been "surrounded by about 30 Russian marines." (Update at 8:05 a.m. ET.)

The developments follow Thursday's takeover of government buildings in Crimea by pro-Russia gunmen and a vote by the parliament there to schedule a referendum on whether the region should demand more autonomy.

Meanwhile, ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych held a news conference Friday in Rostov-on-Don, a city on the Russian side of the border with Ukraine. As he began his remarks just after 5 p.m. local time (8 a.m. ET), Yanukovych said he is "eager and ready to fight for the future of Ukraine." He said the agreement he signed last week that was aimed at holding new elections later this year needs to be enforced. (Update at 8:12 a.m. ET.)

Yanukovych said, however, that he is "not going to ask for military support" — a signal that he won't turn to his Russian allies for that kind of help. Still, he decried those who he said are using "terror and fear" to rule Ukraine and who he said forced him to flee even though he had agreed to a play for new elections later this year. He referred to his toppling as "banditry and a coup." (Update at 8:45 a.m. ET. For more on Yanukovych's news conference, click here.)

The new government in Ukraine has announced it will ask Russia to extradite Yanukovych, so that he can face mass murder charges stemming from the deaths in Kiev last week of scores of protesters. Yanukovych has also been accused of corruption, and Ukrainian authorities claim he's responsible for the disappearance of billions of dollars in government money.

As NPR's Michele Kelemen reported Friday on Morning Edition, while all this goes on, "the U.S. says this should not be a zero sum game, and Ukraine should not face a choice of East versus West, but that's not an easy case to make." Secretary of State John Kerry, she added, "says he received assurances from Moscow that it will respect Ukraine's territorial integrity."

We've previously summed up what sparked months of protest in Kiev and ultimately led to Yanukovych's dismissal last weekend this way:

"The protests were sparked in part by the president's rejection of a pending trade treaty with the European Union and his embrace of more aid from Russia. Protesters were also drawn into the streets to demonstrate against government corruption."

Also Friday, Bloomberg BusinessWeek writes, "Ukraine's new government said it had enough reserves to pay all creditors as the country started negotiations for an International Monetary Fund loan." But BusinessWeek notes that Ukraine's currency, the hryvnia, "[has] plunged to a record low this week as ethnic tensions at home and Russian military maneuvers nearby rattle investors."

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