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Crimea leader calls for Russian help to restore calm in the semi-autonomous region

There are indications that the crisis in Ukraine’s southern Crimea region is escalating. The new premier of the region has said that armed men guarding key buildings are from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

Sergei Aksyonov, who was elected by lawmakers as the Crimea's new prime minister just this past Thursday, said on Saturday that he had asserted his control over all military, police and other security forces in the semi-autonomous region.

"I order all commanders to fulfil only my directives. All those who do not agree I ask to leave the service," he said.

Appeal for Moscow's assistance

Aksyonov, the head of the main pro-Russian party in the southern Ukrainian region, then went on to appeal to Moscow for support.

"Understanding my responsibility for the life and security of citizens, I appeal to the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, for assistance in guaranteeing peace and calmness on the territory of the autonomous republic of Crimea," he said.

Aksyonov's appeal came amid heightened tensions on the peninsula, a day after heavily armed troops wearing uniforms without military insignias took control of two key airports in the region. They also took up positions around government buildings in the main city of Simferopol.

Later on Saturday, Aksyonov told the Interfax news agency that the troops in question were members of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Shortly afterwards, the RIA news agency cited the Fleet’s press service, which said it had agreed with the Crimean authorities to jointly guard key buildings. The Reuters news agency later reported that the Fleet's press service had declined to comment, when asked to confirm the RIA report.

US warning

The events of the past couple of days have also ramped up tensions between the Kremlin and the White House, with US President Barack Obama saying in a televised statement on Friday that Washington was "deeply concerned by reports of military movements taken by Russian forces" in Crimea.

He warned that any violation of Ukraine's sovereignty "would be deeply destabilizing, which is not in the interest of Ukraine, Russia or Europe."

The US president also warned that Russia would incur "costs for any military intervention in Ukraine."

Meanwhile, Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, rejected allegations of military aggression expressed by the new government in Kyiv.

"We have an agreement with Ukraine on the presence of the Russian Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol and we are acting within the framework of that agreement," Churkin said. In response to a reporter's question about reports that additional Russian forces had landed in Crimea, Churkin said he was unable to provide specifics.

pfd/tj (AP, dpa, Reuters, AFP)

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