Russia approves use of troops in Ukraine

2:05 PM, Mar 2, 2014   |    comments
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Anti-government protesters clash with riot police in Kiev's Independence Square, Kiev, Ukraine (file photo)

SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine (USA TODAY) - Russian parliament's upper house unanimously approved the deployment of troops in the Crimea region of Ukraine on Saturday.

Defying a warning by President Obama a day earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin asked parliament for permission to use military force in Ukraine due to the "extraordinary situation" there. Putin said the move is needed to protect ethnic Russians and personnel at a Russian military base in Crimea.

"I'm submitting a request for using the armed forces of the Russian Federation on the territory of Ukraine pending the normalization of the socio-political situation in that country," Putin said in a statement released by the Kremlin.

Lawmakers recommended that Putin recall the Russian ambassador to the U.S., the Wall Street Journal and the BBC reported.

Meanwhile, senior Ukrainian politician Vitali Klitschko called for a "general mobilization" in the country.

"Parliament must request the army chief to mobilize following Russian aggression against Ukraine," Klitschko said in a statement.

The news comes hours after Crimea's pro-Russia leader Sergei Askenov declared himself in charge of all security services and made a direct appeal to Moscow.

"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," Aksenov said in a statement quoted by Russian news agencies.

In Kiev, the interim government that replaced exiled President Viktor Yanukovych said Russia is violating its sovereignty.

"We demand that the Russian government and authorities recall their troops and return them to their bases," interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk said Saturday in remarks published by Interfax, Ukraine's official agency.

"There is inappropriate presence of Russian military servicemen in Crimea now. This is nothing but a violation of the basic provisions of the agreement on the Russian Black Sea Fleet's temporary presence on the Ukrainian territory," Yatseniuk said.

Meanwhile, Washington continued to call for mediation to defuse the crisis.

"The United States calls for an urgent international mediation mission to the Crimea to begin to de-escalate the situation, and facilitate productive and peaceful political dialogue among all Ukrainian parties," Samantha Power, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, said in New York.

STORY: Obama warns Russia about Ukraine sovereignty

Ukraine closed its airspace over Crimea on Saturday after border officials said at least eight Russian transport planes landed Friday at a military base, delivering unknown goods and personnel. Ukraine's Crimea province has an ethnic Russian majority and hosts the Russian navy's Black Sea fleet.

All flights to and from the provincial capital of Simferopol were canceled a day after unidentified gunmen - suspected to be Russian forces - took over the region's main airport and a military airport outside the naval city of Sevastopol.

There are also reports the soldiers at the airport could be private contractors working for Russia's interior ministry, thereby offering a loophole as Russia says its forces haven't intervened.

Regardless, the situation was tense in the region as Aksionov reassured local residents that he had the situation was under control.

"The authorities are at their desks working," he said at a meeting televised state broadcaster, Krym TV. "We guarantee the people, irrespective of their ethnic background, a sober, realistic and just approach in resolving their issues. I am especially addressing the Crimean Tatars: I assure you that nothing threatens you."

Most residents of the Black Sea peninsula have linguistic and cultural ties to Russia with a clear majority self-identifying as ethnic Russia.

Nowhere is that more apparent than the port city of Sevastopol which is home to the Russian navy's Black Sea fleet thanks to a lease agreement not set to expire until at least 2042.

The Russian tricolor flag flies over most buildings and the Ukrainian language is rarely heard on the streets. In recent days pro-Russia rallies have drawn enthusiastic crowds that have reveled in the colorful display of nationalistic pageantry.

One such rally Friday was led by one of Russia's most flamboyant nationalist politicians who spoke to hundreds who flocked to hear his words in front of the city hall that in recent days has flown the Russian - not Ukrainian - flag.

"All the roads, all the ports, all the communications are under the control of the provincial Crimean government," Vladimir Zhirinovsky declared to thunderous applause and chants of "Russia! Russia!".

The Russian politician took a swipe at Ukraine's nationalist caretaker government that alarmed many earlier this week by proposing a law that would strip the Russian language of official status.

"If they want somewhere only to speak Ukrainian then here we will speak only Russian," he said. "If in Kiev people have revolted against their government then why can't people in Sevastopol?"

Contributing: Jabeen Bhatti in Berlin; Katharine Lackey in McLean, Va.; The Associated Press

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