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Armed, masked men appear at airports in Crimea

An armed man was on patrol at the airport in the Crimean city of Simferopol.

REUTERS

An armed man was on patrol at the airport in the Crimean city of Simferopol.

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — Armed men of uncertain allegiance took up positions at two airports here in Ukraine’s Crimean region Friday, fueling concerns about possible Russian military intervention or a separatist rebellion in a region with stronger historical ties to Russia than to Ukraine’s central government in Kiev.

Although there were no confrontations or bloodshed by evening, the appearance of a large number of masked men with assault rifles unnerved residents and travelers, who were buffeted by warnings from Kiev of military meddling by Moscow and statements from the deposed Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, that the country had been taken over by fascists and “bandits.”

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In Simferopol, the regional capital of Crimea, men dressed in camouflage and carrying assault rifles moved into position at the international airport and a second airfield nearby. Their military uniforms bore no insignia and it was not clear who they were or who was commanding them. They declined to answer questions.

Ukrainian International, Ukraine’s biggest airline, said Friday that it had canceled flights into and out of the Crimea region because the airspace had been closed, although this could not be immediately verified.

Reuters reported that about 20 armed men wearing the uniform of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet surrounded a Ukrainian border guard post near the port city of Sevastopol, 50 miles southwest of Simferopol.

Moscow denied that its forces had moved into Crimea and attributed the presence of troops there to “internal political processes in Ukraine,” according to a statement from the foreign ministry. It said it had not violated agreements not to intervene in Ukrainian affairs.

Armored personnel carriers with Russian markings appeared on roads Friday outside Simferopol, sometimes alone but at other times in long columns of military vehicles. It was unclear whether the movements signaled a Russian push to occupy the city, a show of strength aimed at cowing far less numerous Ukrainian forces in the region, or simply a routine rotation of Russian hardware.

Russia has numerous military facilities in Crimea, the most important of which is the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet, in Sevastopol. Its military vehicles regularly move around the peninsula, but Friday’s activity was more intense than usual, according to local residents.

There were no immediate signs of panic in Simferopol, which has a large ethnic Russian population and has generally supported Moscow’s line that Kiev, 400 miles to the north, has been overrun by fascists who pose a grave threat to the interests of Ukraine’s Russian speakers.

The only visible military presence in the center of the city were unidentified gunmen who seized the regional parliament building and a government office complex this week. But Simferopol swirled with rumors, all unconfirmed, that Russian troops had seized Crimea’s main television station, the central post office and other strategic locations. Residents also exchanged information, apparently more grounded in reality, about sightings of Russian military transport planes landing at airports.

“This is an open but unannounced aggression by the Russian Federation against the territory of Ukraine,” said Refat Chubarov, the leader of Crimea’s indigenous population of Tatars, a Muslim Turkic people, and a strong advocate of the region’s remaining part of Ukrainian territory. He said Russian military helicopters had flouted Ukrainian sovereignty by flying into Crimea without permission.

In Kiev, the speaker of parliament, Oleksandr V. Turchynov, who is now the acting president of Ukraine, convened a meeting of the National Security and Defense Council to discuss the situation in Crimea.

Announcing the meeting in parliament, Turchynov said, “Terrorists with automatic weapons, judged by our special services to be professional soldiers, tried to take control of the airport in Crimea.”

Yanukovych, in a news conference Friday in Rostov-on-Don, in southern Russia not far from Crimea, said the region should remain part of Ukraine, despite its historic, linguistic and cultural ties to Russia.

“I think that everything that has happened in Crimea is a natural reaction to the gangster coup that happened in Kiev,” he said.

He added, “People of Crimea don’t want to submit and they will not submit to Bandera thugs,” referring to a World War II-era nationalist leader, Stepan Bandera, who was vilified by the Soviet Union.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke Friday with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, about the appearance of the armed men at the airports.

“We raised the issue of the airports, raised the issue of armored vehicles, raised the issue of personnel in various places,” Kerry told reporters in Washington.

Lavrov asserted that Russia would respect the sovereignty of Ukraine, Kerry said. But Kerry said that he had told his Russia counterpart that “it is important for everybody to be extremely careful not to inflame the situation.”

At the Simferopol airport, the armed men set up positions around a central administrative building, but they did not appear to enter the terminals. There were no roadblocks or checkpoints on the roads leading to the airport or on the grounds of the airport.

After nightfall, Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire member of parliament, said outside the airport building that he had come to Crimea to negotiate with the regional parliament on behalf of the national government in Kiev. He said his mission was “to do everything not to allow an escalation of violence” and to stress to the Crimeans that they were fellow Ukrainians and that Ukraine must not be divided.

He referred to the soldiers standing behind him as “foreign” and more than once gestured toward them with distaste.

“What I cannot accept is the presence here of foreign troops,” he said. “We cannot accept the danger for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Meanwhile, another confrontation was underway at a second airport, called Belbek, that is used for military and some civilian flights.

In a post on his Facebook page, the interior minister, Arsen Avakov, said that units believed to be affiliated with the Russian military had blocked access to the airport overnight, with some Ukrainian military personnel and border guards inside. Avakov wrote that the men blocking the airport were also wearing camouflage uniforms with no identifying insignia, but he added, “They do not hide their affiliation.”

Avakov said the airport was not functioning and that “there is no armed conflict yet.”

At the international airport, Avakov said, Ukrainian authorities confronted the armed men and told them, “You soldiers have no right to be located here.” The uniformed men responded curtly, “We do not have instructions to negotiate with you,” he said.

“Tension is building,” Avakov wrote, adding: “I regard what is happening as an armed invasion and occupation in violation of all international treaties and norms. This is a direct provoking of armed bloodshed on the territory of a sovereign state.”

Igor K. Tresilaty, who identified himself as assistant to the general director at the international airport, said Friday that the soldiers were remaining in common areas outside the airport, in the restaurant and in parking lots.

He said he did not know who they were and expressed no curiosity about them, saying only that they looked professional.

“They’re walking around, but we, nor the police, can’t have any complaint against them because they’re not violating anything, they’re not touching anyone,” Tresilaty said.

Russia’s Black Sea Fleet denied that its forces were involved in the deployment at one of the airports. But the national parliament in Kiev appealed to for Russia to “stop moves that show signs of undermining national sovereignty” in Ukraine, Reuters reported, and it urged the United States and Britain to honor commitments made in the early 1990s to protect the country’s territorial integrity.

Parliament also called on the U.N. Security Council to debate the issue, apparently seeking to broaden the dispute.

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