SIMFEROPOL, March 1 (RIA Novosti) – The Crimean Prime Minister said Saturday that Russian troops are operating on the Ukrainian peninsula and made a personal appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin for more assistance.
The Kremlin said in a subsequent statement that it would not ignore the request for help.
Sergei Aksyonov, who was appointed prime minister after a parliamentary vote Thursday, said that an agreement was in place with Russia’s Black Sea Fleet for Russian soldiers to perform guard duties at strategic locations.
“We have established cooperation with the Black Sea Fleet to protect vitally important sites,” Aksyonov said during a Cabinet meeting.
There have been widespread reports of significant Russian military activity, including the movement of tanks, troops and helicopters, across the Crimea in recent days. But Russia has insisted that all the movements are allowed within the framework of a 1997 agreement with Ukraine about the use of naval bases.
“I am turning to Russian President Vladimir Putin to request assistance to preserve peace and calm,” said Aksyonov, who is the leader of Ukraine’s Russian Unity Party.
Aksyonov also announced that a referendum on the status of Crimea within Ukraine will be brought forward by almost two months, to March 30, and said that local security forces including the police and the army - which are usually commanded from Kiev - will be brought under his control.
The developments in Crimea appear to bring closer a possible partition of the former Soviet nation where a new government is struggling to control the country after the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych last week.
Putin has made no public comment on the current Ukrainian crisis since the opposition swept to power after months of street protests ended in a violent crackdown in which 82 people died.
Armed men in balaclavas have occupied key public buildings in Crimea in recent days and appeared to have taken control of the region’s two main airports. The Crimean parliament was seized Thursday by armed men who raised the Russian flag.
One of Ukraine’s largest telecommunications companies said in a statement Friday that telephone and internet links between Crimea and the rest of the country had been severed.
The incoming authorities in Kiev have described developments in Crimea as an invasion, and interim president Oleksandr Turchynov told reporters late Friday that Russia was seeking to provoke conflict.
Russia has recently moved about 6,000 additional troops into Crimea, Ukraine's defense minister said Saturday, according to report by Reuters news agency.
Crimea was transferred to the Ukrainian Republic by the Soviet leadership in 1954. Since the fall of Communism it has enjoyed a large degree of political autonomy within Ukraine, including its own prime minister.
About 60 percent of the population in Crimea identifies itself as ethnic Russian, with the remainder being Ukrainian or Crimean Tatar.
Pro-Russian groups and Tatars, who mostly support the new regime in Kiev, clashed outside the Crimean parliament Thursday during a confrontation in which at least two people died.
Updates with confirmation of Russian troops on ground, new details, and new headline