5th UPDATE: US Warns Russia Over Military Exercises Near Ukraine

Kiev/Brussels (Alliance News) - Russia must act carefully during "a very delicate time" in ...

Alliance News 27 February, 2014 | 3:10PM
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Kiev/Brussels (Alliance News) - Russia must act carefully during "a very delicate time" in Ukraine, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday, as the Kremlin began military drills near its western neighbour and flew extra fighter jets to patrol the region.

"I expect Russia to be transparent about these activities and I urge them not to take any steps which could be misinterpreted or lead to miscalculation during a very delicate time, a time of great tension," Hagel said in Brussels at a meeting of NATO defence ministers.

Hagel said Washington is in contact with the Russian government, adding that he is arranging to speak with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu in the coming days.

"This is a time for very cool, wise leadership, on the Russian side and on everybody's side," he added.

The American defence chief's comments came as 150,000 Russian troops, along with 880 tanks and 90 planes began combat-readiness drills, exercises which were ordered by President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday.

The defence ministry in Moscow said Thursday that it was also flying extra fighter jets over the border region.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen struck a milder note than Hagel, saying the military alliance has no reason to worry about military drills, although the "coincidence" in timing "doesn't make things easier" to calm the violence that has erupted in Ukraine's Moscow-leaning Crimea region.

Ukraine's interim President and parliamentary speaker Oleksandr Turchynov warned Russia to keep its armed forces in Crimea inside their bases.

Thousands of Russian troops are stationed in the port city of Sevastopol, which houses the Russian Black Sea fleet.

Any troop movements outside their agreed territory will be considered "military aggression," Turchynov told parliament.

Violetta Lisina, the local government spokeswoman in Crimea, said on Facebook that Russian armed personnel carriers were standing close to the airport in Simferopol, the regional capital

However, local media reported that they turned back after being stopped by Ukrainian traffic police.

The Crimea, a peninsula that juts into the Black Sea, descended into turmoil Thursday after gunmen seized the parliament and government buildings in the regional capital Simferopol and hoisted the Russian flag on both roofs.

Some 100 men with automatic weapons later allowed deputies and government officials enter the buildings, Lisina said.

On Wednesday, two people were killed and 35 injured in clashes between pro-Russian separatists and supporters of the new leadership in Kiev outside the parliament building.

Local officials said that a referendum would be held to determine the future status of Crimea, which is an autonomous republic inside Ukraine.

Meanwhile, in Kiev, the Ukrainian parliament on Thursday elected former opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk as the country's prime minister.

Yatsenyuk was backed by 371 of 417 participating deputies. There was one vote against him, according to live television footage.

The close ally of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko was supported by the Udar party of boxer turned politician Vitali Klitschko and by members of the Party of Regions of deposed president Viktor Yanukovych.

Before his election, Yatsenyuk vowed to sign an association agreement with the EU and promised to keep Crimea inside Ukraine.

Parliament also confirmed Ihor Tenyukh, a former admiral and navy commander, as defence minister, and Andriy Deshchytsya, a former ambassador, as foreign minister.

The government in Moscow said that it was protecting the toppled former president Yanukovych in Russia.

A request from Yanukovych to ensure his safety was fulfilled, an unnamed government source said in comments carried by all three Russian news agencies.

Yanukovych, whose whereabouts had been unknown after he was ousted from office at the weekend, said in a statement he needed Russia's protection because "extremists" are threatening his life.

The deposed leader added that he still considers himself the legitimate president of Ukraine and that the parliament in Kiev, which voted to impeach him, was acting illegally.

He said that the Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine won't accept this "lawlessness" and that people in the south-east and Crimea do not accept it when leaders are elected "by a crowd on a square" in the capital, according to Russian news agencies.

Yanukovych fled Kiev Friday night after the three-month old mass protests on the square, known as the Maidan, turned violent and more than 80 people were killed.

Ukraine's new leadership requested aid from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in order to avoid bankruptcy, the institution's managing director said Thursday.

"We are ready to respond and, in the coming days, will send an IMF fact-finding mission to Kiev to undertake a preliminary dialogue with the authorities," Christine Lagarde said.

It will help the IMF carry out an "independent assessment" of the situation in the cash-strapped country and explore the reforms it could demand in return for financial support, she said, noting the IMF was in touch with its international partners.

Authorities in Kiev have said the country needs 35 billion dollars over the next two years in order to avoid financial catastrophe.

Copyright dpa

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