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Ukraine

Ukraine: diplomatic solution to crisis is 'our priority'

The acting foreign minister of Ukraine has said that Kyiv has begun working to create a contact group. Russia has also said it's also ready for dialogue, but not if it continues to be portrayed as the bad guy.

Ukraine's acting foreign minister, Andrii Deshchytsia, told reporters in Kyiv on Saturday morning that the interim government was working to begin negotiations.

"We are discussing the issue of creating a contact group [which would include] the representative countries who created this group," Ukraine interim Foreign Minister Deshchytsia said, referring to allies, such as Germany, who proposed the idea of a contact group as a first step toward resolving the diplomatic crisis.

Much remained to be discussed with Russia, he said.

"We are [also] considering the possibility of creating other channels between Ukraine and Russia which would be able to discuss the issues of Crimea and regulating the situation [there]," he said.

"Solving this problem diplomatically is our priority...and a [contact group would be] better than nothing at all," he added.

Over the past week, Moscow has deployed thousands of Russian soldiers to the Crimean peninsula, where fighting between ethnic Muslim Tartars and pro-Russia supporters had broken out. Russian President Vladimir Putin contends that he wants to ensure the safety of the majority Russian-speaking population. However, Western leaders have dismissed his defense as baseless.

Crimean referendum 'unlawful'

The Crimean parliament's decision to hold a referendum vote on joining the Russian Federation has been met with criticism from Western leaders.

Deshchytsia echoed this sentiment.

"[The referendum] is unlawful and it will have no legal consequences for either Crimea, Ukraine [or], I hope, the international community," he told reporters.

Both houses of Russia's parliament have signalled they would welcome Crimea into the Federation, a move wished sparked international outcry on Friday.

'Calm and peace'

Deshchytsia also called on Russia to allow international observers into Crimea, after armed men stopped a team of military and civilian observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) from entering the peninsula. The Russian foreign ministry said the group was stopped because it had not secured "official invitations" from Crimean authorities.

Heightened tensions in Crimea

"We are prepared to provide support to these missions," Deshchytsia said.

He also called on Ukrainians and Ukrainian soldiers to maintain "calm and peace" in the face of Russian provocations.

"We are calling [on Ukrainians] not to respond to Russian provocations," he said adding that Kyiv enjoyed the "wide and firm support of...key players on the international stage."

Overnight on Friday, Ukraine said that armed men - believed to be pro-Russian - had stormed a Ukrainian air force base in Crimea. There were no reports of shooting or injury. All of Ukraine's military bases in Crimea that have not yet surrendered to the pro-Russian side are understood to be under siege.

Lavrov: crisis not our fault

The Russian foreign minister indicated Moscow would be willing to sit down with international leaders, but only if the dialogue was "objective."

"We will not accept attempts to display Russia as a party to the conflict," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a televised news conference in Moscow.

"This crisis was not created by [Russia]...it was created in defiance of our repeated and longstanding warnings," Lavrov added.

The Russian foreign minister also criticized the interim government in Kyiv as one dependent "on radical nationalists who carried out an armed seizure of power."

Russia has continued to dismiss Western warnings over its military presence in the Crimean peninsula this week. During a phone conversation with US Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned Washington against levying sanctions on Moscow aimed at forcing it to withdraw troops from the Ukrainian territory.

Washington imposed visa bans on Russians and Ukrainians considered responsible for destabilizing Ukraine on Thursday. The EU issued a statement on the same day saying it had postponed EU-visa negotiations and that it would impose travel bans, asset freezes and cancel the EU-Russia summit if Moscow didn't yield to its demands soon.

The Crimean parliament's decision to hold a referendum on joining the Russian Federation only worsened the diplomatic crisis with Moscow. Western leaders have deemed the move illegal and based on Russian influence, not the will of the Crimean people.

kms/tj (AFP, Reuters, dpa)

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