Ukraine’s ousted leader Victor Yanukovych insisted he is still the “legitimate” President even as he took shelter in Russia amid a growing revolt in Russian-speaking Crimea against the power takeover in Kiev.
In a statement issued on Thursday Mr. Yanukovych said he still considered himself “the legitimate head of the Ukrainian state” and asked Moscow to guarantee his personal safety “from extremists.”
The new leaders in Ukraine have issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Yanukovych and some other officials held responsible for the death of more than 80 people in violent protests in Kiev.
An unnamed Russian official was quoted by news agencies as saying that Mr. Yanukovych’s request had been “granted on the territory of the Russian Federation.”
One report said Mr. Yanukovych was staying at a Kremlin sanatorium in Barvikha, an elite neighbourhood just outside Moscow.
“Decisions that are being taken by [Ukraine’s] Parliament… are unlawful… will soon prove to be ineffectual and will not be carried out,” Mr. Yanukovych said in his statement.
Vowing “to fight to the end,” Mr. Yanukovych called for returning the situation in Ukraine “to the constitutional framework.” He demanded that Ukraine’s armed forces do not to interfere in mass anti-Kiev protests that have swept Crimea and eastern provinces of the country.
Lawmakers in Crimea on Thursday announced plans to hold a referendum on greater independence from the central government in Kiev.
Crimea, where ethnic Russians account for 60 percent of the population, is the only region of Ukraine which enjoys the status of autonomous republic.
Denouncing “an unconstitutional power grab by radical nationalists, backed by armed gangs,” the Presidium of the Crimean Parliament in Simferopol called for holding “an All-Crimea referendum on improving the status of the autonomous republic and expanding its powers.”
Speaker Vladimir Konstantinov said the referendum would be scheduled for May 25, the same day Ukraine is to elect its new President.
Earlier on Thursday armed pro-Russian activists took control of the Crimean Parliament and the local government and raised the Russian flag on the buildings. They said they acted to ensure that lawmakers could meet unhindered. A day earlier Crimean Tatars, who support the new leaders in Kiev, clashed with pro-Russian protesters and disrupted the Parliament session. Three people died in the clashes and dozens were wounded.
Ukraine’s Acting President Olexandr Turchinov said he had ordered security services to “unblock” the seized building in Simferopol and “punish the guilty ones.”
Mr. Yanukovych’s claim of legitimacy plays into the hands of Russia, which has refused to recognise the “armed mutiny” in Ukraine. The declaration of support for the pro-Russian demonstrations in Crimea from Ukraine’s “legitimate” President may provide a pretext for Moscow if it decides to intervene in the region, where Russia has a major naval base. Crimea was part of Russia till 1954, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, an ethnic Ukrainian, handed it over to Ukraine.
Russia launched a week-long snap military drill on Thursday to “check combat readiness” of its armed forces in Western regions of the country. Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said the war games, involving 150,000 troops and scores of aircraft and warships, “generally speaking” were not connected with the upheaval in Ukraine, but were being conducted “along Russia’s borders.”
In Kiev, Ukraine’s Parliament on Thursday voted in a new government after candidates received “approval” from protesters in Maidan Square. Former Economic Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk was appointed Prime Minister.