Armed men seize the regional government headquarters in Crimea. Ukraine summons the Russian ambassador after Russian fighter jets put on “combat alert”.
Around 60 people reported to be inside the building, in the Crimean capital Simferopol, were said to be armed, and the doors of the parliament were barricaded with tables and chairs.
A witness, speaking to Russian news agency Interfax, said no one had been hurt when the buildings were seized in the early hours of Thursday.
Ukraine’s interim interior minister has confirmed the seizure of the building, Ukrainian television said. Oleksander Turchinov, Ukraine’s acting president, appealed for calm and labeled the people who haad taken the building “criminals in military fatigues”.
He has also told Ukraine’s secret services to take “any measures” to protect citizens.
Ukraine’s parliament in Kiev agreed on Thursday that the country should be led by a coalition government and proposed the former economy minister Arseny Yatseniuk as prime minister.
Crimea is the only Ukrainian region with an ethnic Russia majority, and there have been protests against Ukraine’s new leadership.
Russia’s defence ministry said on Thursday that fighter jets along its western border had been placed on “combat alert”.
“Constant air patrols are being carried out by fighter jets in the border regions,” Russian news agency Interfax quoted a ministry statement as saying.
“From the moment they received the signal to be on high alert, the air force in the western military region left for the… air bases.”
Kiev has summoned the Russian ambassador, and said it wants “immediate consultations” with Moscow.
Mr Turchniov warned the Russian military that any troop movements outside Russia’s naval base in Sevastapol, on the Crimean peninsula, will be seen as an act of aggression.
On Thursday Russia also announced that it would guarantee the personal safety of ousted President Viktor Yanukovich, who is wanted by the Ukrainian authorites for alleged “mass murder”.
Yanukovich emerged after a week of silence, since he fled Kiev, to say that he considers himself to still be the “lawful head of the Ukrainian government”.
The former head of state called on Russia to guarantee his personal safety. Moscow responded: “In connection with the appeal by President Yanukovich for his personal security to be guaranteed, I report that the request has been granted on the territory of the Russian Federation.”
The seizure of government buildings could lead to a regional conflict, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said on Thursday.
“This is a drastic step and I’m warning those who did this and those who allowed them to do this, because this is how regional conflicts begin. This is a very dangerous game,” he told a news conference.
Germany’s Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen said the “most important thing” is to avoid a Ukrainian break-up.
Arriving for a meeting of Nato defence ministers, she said: “We are concerned about the events in Crimea. The most important thing is to avoid a break-up of Ukraine.”
On Wednesday, ethnic Tatars, who support the new leadership, clashed with pro-Russian protesters outside the parliament.
A local Tatar leader, Refat Chubarov, said on Facebook: “I have been told that the buildings of parliament and the council of ministers have been occupied by armed men in uniforms that do not bear any recognisable insignia.
“They have not yet made any demands.”
Ukraine’s interim leadership has previously raised concerns over “dangerous serpatism” in the country.
Also on Wednesday, Russia put combat troops on high alert – Moscow’s most powerful sabre-rattling gesture since the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovich.
Russia’s response to the new Ukrainian leadership has been to criticise “neo-fascist sympathies” in the pro-European west of the country. There have been concerns that Russia could respond with direct intervention in the Crimea.
On Thursday, the Russian foreign ministry said it would defend the rights of its “compatriots”.
“Russia’s foreign ministry will continue to defend in the international arena the rights of its compatriots, it will strongly and uncompromisingly react when they are violated,” the ministry said on its Twitter microblog.
The ministry said “large-scale human rights violations” in Ukraine were a cause for concern.