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Last updated: March 15, 2014 10:43 pm
Ukraine’s military on Saturday claimed it had repelled the first Russian military incursion on to mainland territory, using aircraft and paratroopers to push back Russian troops that landed in helicopters on a strip of land connecting with the breakaway Crimean peninsula.
The confrontation came as the UN Security Council failed to adopt a resolution calling on countries not to recognise the results of Sunday’s planned referendum on Crimea due to a veto by Russia.
The tense incident, not yet formally confirmed by Russian authorities, heightened fears that Russia may be planning a broader military invasion into Ukrainian territory on the eve of Sunday’s controversial referendum in Crimea, where locals will vote on possible reunification with Russia.
“Units of Ukraine’s armed forces today . . . repelled an attempt by servicemen of the armed forces of the Russian Federation to enter the territory of Kherson region on Arbatskaya Strelka,” Ukraine’s defence ministry said in a statement.
Ukraine’s foreign ministry described the events as a “military invasion by Russia” and called on Russia to “immediately withdraw its military forces from the territory of Ukraine”.
“Ukraine reserves the right to use all necessary measures to stop the military invasion by Russia,” the ministry added in a statement.
There were no reports of gunfire breaking out during the incident.
Ukraine’s defence ministry described the incident as the “latest provocation” by Russian troops, who have swarmed across Crimea in numbers close to 20,000 in support of a local separatist movement.
Speaking on Ukrainian television, journalists on the scene said that, before retreating, the Russian soldiers justified their presence as necessary to prevent a terrorist attack on energy infrastructure in the region.
Amid conflicting reports, it was not immediately clear if the Russian troops - up to 80 according to some accounts - had pulled back to Crimea from the Kherson region.
Russia said on Saturday it was looking at requests for help from civilians in Ukraine, a statement which appeared to resemble those made two weeks ago in justification of its military incursion into Crimea.
“Russia is receiving numerous requests for protecting civilians. These requests will be given consideration,” the foreign ministry said. It added a string of claims that Ukrainian militants and mercenaries were threatening civilians, which could not immediately be verified.
The claims follow a statement from Moscow this week that the Russian government reserved the “right to protect” Russians in Ukraine.
Russia on Saturday vetoed a UN Security Council resolution on Crimea, and China abstained, calling on countries not to recognise the results of Sunday’s planned referendum. The 15-member Security Council voted 13-1 in favour of the resolution but was killed by the veto.
Russia’s veto was expected but much attention focused on China. A core tenet of Beijing’s foreign policy is respect for sovereignty and non-interference in foreign states, but it also acts broadly in concert with Russia in many international issues.
Sweden’s foreign minister Carl Bildt tweeted: “At UN Security Council 13 nations vote against Crimea so called referendum. China abstains. Russia vetoes. Voice of world is clear.”
The continuing stand-off between Russia and Ukraine comes hours after two people were killed late Friday in the second day of fatal clashes in eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian activists.
Police officials early on Saturday said they arrested 30 individuals in the city of Kharkiv suspected of involvement in the incident, during which gunshots were reported.
The violence came one day after one pro-Ukrainian protester was killed by pro-Russian activists in Donetsk, another big industrial city close to Ukraine’s eastern border.
It follows claims by Ukrainian officials that pro-Russian forces, some coming across the border from Russia, were provoking the violence to justify further military incursions into eastern Ukraine by Russia.
As anti-war and pro-Ukrainian unity protests emerged on Saturday afternoon in Simferopol, Crimea’s capital, Ukraine’s parliament voted to disband the autonomous peninsula’s legislature for exceeding its constitutional authority in calling the Sunday referendum, which has been condemned as illegitimate by the west.
But with the backing of Russian soldiers, the autonomous peninsula’s separatist leadership was nonetheless unlikely to put off the controversial vote.
In Simferopol, dozens of men in combat fatigues and ski masks carrying automatic weapons occupied a hotel where most of the international press corps is staying, fanning out on all floors. A police spokesman said it was a “training exercise” to avert possible terrorist attacks.
Exits from the hotel were blocked and guests confined to the lobby area.
Leading a delegation of US senators visiting Kiev, Republican John McCain urged US President Barack Obama to swiftly sanction the supply of arms to Ukraine, whose cash-strapped government he said has repeatedly pleaded for everything from rifles, anti-aircraft technology and basic supplies
“All the president has to do is order it tomorrow . . . I would have done it the moment they asked,” Mr McCain said.
“There is a significant Russian build-up on their eastern border . . . the largest paratrooper operation since second world war just took place. Isn’t it logical to think that people should have weapons to defend themselves? Do you want them to throw rocks? Why shouldn’t we help people that have already had a chunk of their nation taken [despite territorial integrity being] guaranteed by a treaty?”
Democratic senator Dick Durbin added: “Ukraine does not have a mighty army. It has a small army. We have got to give them the wherewithal to defend themselves should they need to.”
Additional reporting by Guy Chazan and Richard McGregor
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