People attend an anti-war rally at Independence Square in Kiev on Sunday. (Reuters)
Sevastopol, Ukraine, March 9 (Reuters): Germany’s Angela Merkel delivered a rebuke to President Vladimir Putin on Sunday, telling him that a planned Moscow-backed referendum on whether Crimea should join Russia was illegal and violated Ukraine’s constitution.
Putin defended breakaway moves by pro-Russian leaders in Crimea, where Russian forces tightened their grip on the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula by seizing another border post and a military airfield.
As thousands staged rival rallies in Crimea, street violence flared in Sevastopol, when pro-Russian activists and Cossacks attacked a group of Ukrainians.
Russian forces’ seizure of the region has been bloodless but tensions are mounting following the decision by pro-Russian groups there to make Crimea part of Russia.
In the latest armed action, pro-Russian forces wearing military uniforms bearing no designated markings sealed off a military airport in Crimea near Saki village, a Ukrainian defence ministry spokesperson said.
The operation to seize Crimea began within days of Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich’s flight from the country last month. Yanukovich was toppled after three months of demonstrations against a decision to spurn a free trade deal with the European Union for closer ties with Russia.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk will hold talks with President Barack Obama in Washington on Wednesday on how to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis, the White House said.
One of Obama’s top national security officials said the US would not recognise the annexation of Crimea by Russia if residents vote to leave Ukraine in a referendum next week. “We won’t recognise it, nor will most of the world,” deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken said.
Speaking by telephone to Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron, Putin said steps taken by authorities in Crimea were “based on international law and aimed at guaranteeing the legitimate interests of the peninsula's population”, the Kremlin said.
A German government statement, however, said the referendum was illegal: “Holding it violates the Ukrainian constitution and international law.”
Merkel also regretted the lack of progress on forming an “international contact group” to seek a political solution to the Ukraine crisis and said this should be done urgently.
In a round of telephone diplomacy on Sunday, the German chancellor also spoke with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, agreeing that Ukraine’s sovereignty must be preserved, and Chinese President Xi Jinping, underlining the need to resolve the crisis through dialogue.
Russians took over a Ukrainian border post on the western edge of Crimea at around 6 am (0400) GMT, trapping about 15 personnel inside, a border guard spokesperson said.
Spokesperson Oleh Slobodyan said Russia now controls 11 border guard posts across Crimea, a former Russian territory that is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and has an ethnic Russian majority.
At a Ukrainian military base at Yevpatoriya on the coast of western Crimea there were reports that the Russian forces had issued an ultimatum to surrender or be stormed.
Across town at a monument to Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, violence flared at a meeting to commemorate the 200th anniversary of his birth, when pro-Russian activists and Cossacks attacked a small group of Ukrainians guarding the event and the police had to intervene.