Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

Ukraine: Russia provides bolt-hole for fugitive president Yanukovych

Anti-government protesters, continue to their clash with police in Independence square, despite a truce agreed between the Ukrainian president and opposition leaders on February 20, 2014 in Kiev, Ukraine. Photo by Jeff J Mitchell
Anti-government protesters, continue to their clash with police in Independence square, despite a truce agreed between the Ukrainian president and opposition leaders on February 20, 2014 in Kiev, Ukraine. Photo by Jeff J Mitchell
Anti-government demonstrators guard government building near to Independence Square on February 23, 2014 in Kiev, Ukraine. Prime Minister Yanukovych is said to have left Kiev for a eastern stronghold as the country's parliament voted to remove Yanukovych from office and call for new elections.  Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Anti-government demonstrators guard government building near to Independence Square on February 23, 2014 in Kiev, Ukraine. Prime Minister Yanukovych is said to have left Kiev for a eastern stronghold as the country's parliament voted to remove Yanukovych from office and call for new elections. Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Protesters clash with police at Presidential office in Kiev, Ukraine, on Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013. As many as 100,000 demonstrators chased away police to rally in the center of Ukraine's capital on Sunday, defying a government ban on protests on Independence Square, in the biggest show of anger over the president's refusal to sign an agreement with the European Union. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
Protesters clash with police at Presidential office in Kiev, Ukraine, on Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013. As many as 100,000 demonstrators chased away police to rally in the center of Ukraine's capital on Sunday, defying a government ban on protests on Independence Square, in the biggest show of anger over the president's refusal to sign an agreement with the European Union. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Russia has granted protection to the fugitive Ukrainian president, reports say, as dozens of heavily armed gunmen seized control of government buildings in Ukraine's Crimea region and raised the Russian flag.

The moves pose an immediate challenge to Ukraine's new authorities as they sought to set up an interim government for the country, whose population is divided in loyalties between Russia and the West. Some 150,000 Russian soldiers carried out military exercises and fighter jets patrolled the border.

A respected Russian news organisation, meanwhile, reported that President Viktor Yanukovych, who was driven out of Kiev by a three-month protest movement, was staying in a Kremlin sanatorium just outside Moscow.

"I have to ask Russia to ensure my personal safety from extremists," Yanukovych said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies on Thursday.

Shortly after, the same three Russian news agencies quoted an unnamed Russian official saying that Yanukovych's request for protection "was satisfied on the territory of Russia".

Oleksandr Turchynov, who stepped in as acting president after Yanukovych's flight, condemned the takeover of government buildings in Crimea as a "crime against the government of Ukraine." He warned that any move by Russian troops from their base in Crimea "will be considered a military aggression."

"Unidentified people with automatic weapons, explosives and grenades have taken over the governmental buildings and the Parliament building in the autonomous region of Crimea," he said. "I have given orders to the military to use all methods necessary to protect the citizens, punish the criminals, and to free the buildings."

In Kiev, MPs were expected to approve the new government that will face the hugely complicated task of restoring stability in a country that is on the verge of financial collapse.

Protest leaders said on Wednesday that they would propose Arseniy Yatsenyuk as the country's new prime minister. The 39-year-old served as economy minister, foreign minister and parliamentary speaker before Yanukovych took office in 2010, and is widely viewed as a technocratic reformer who enjoys the support of the US.

Yanukovych fled after riot police attacked protesters in Kiev's central square, killing more than 80 people, and European and Russian officials intervened. He has not been seen publicly since Saturday, when he said he remained the legitimately elected president - a position that has been backed by Russia.

Russia's RBK news organisation has reported that Yanukovych was staying at the Barvikha sanatorium, which is run by the presidential administration's property department. The spokesman for this department said he has no information about this.

The RBK report was impossible to confirm, but security at the Ukraina Hotel was unusually heavy, with police watching from parked vehicles outside and guards posted throughout the lobby. Some of Yanukovych's allies, also reported to have been at the hotel, may have still been there.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman also said he had no information about Yanukovych's reported arrival in Moscow.

In a clear warning to Ukraine, Putin on Wednesday ordered massive military exercises involving most of the military units in western Russia. On Thursday, as part of the exercises, 90 fighter jets were put on combat alert and were patrolling the border with Ukraine, the Defence Ministry said.

Crimea buildings surrounded

Red carpet welcome for Merkel

Russia orders combat readiness test 

The military also announced measures to tighten security at the headquarters of Russia's Black Sea Fleet on the Crimean peninsula in southeastern Ukraine.

The military manoeuvres prompted a sharp rebuke from US Secretary of State John Kerry, who warned Russia that any military intervention in Ukraine would be a "grave mistake".

The Russian Foreign Ministry voiced concern about the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine and vowed to protect their interests. It said Russia "will have a firm and uncompromising response to violations of the rights of compatriots by foreign states."

Russia has accused Ukraine's interim leaders of failing to control radicals who threaten the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine's east and south, which includes the Crimean Peninsula.

Witnesses said the gunmen in Simferopol, the Crimean regional capital, wore unmarked camouflage uniforms and carried rocket-propelled grenades, sniper rifles and other weapons. They raised the Russian flag over the local parliament building.

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."

Maxim, a pro-Russian activist who refused to give his last name, said he and other activists had camped overnight outside the local parliament in Simferopol when 50-60 heavily armed men wearing flak jackets and carrying rocket-propelled grenade launchers and sniper rifles took over the building.

"Our activists were sitting there all night calmly, building the barricades," he said. "At 5 o'clock unknown men turned up and went to the building. They got into the courtyard and put everyone on the ground.

"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-organised operation."

The local government said Crimean Prime Minister Anatoly Mogilyev had tried to negotiate with the gunmen but was told "they were not authorised to negotiate and present demands".

Ukraine's acting interior minister, Arsen Avakov, said on his Facebook page that police were sealing off the area.

"Measures have been taken to counter extremist actions and not allow the situation to escalate into an armed confrontation in the centre of the city," he said.

Meanwhile, Ukraine's currency, the hryvnia, dropped further to a new record low of 11.25 to the US dollar, a sign of the country's financial distress.

One of the new government's first tasks will be to seek rescue loans from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

 

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