Ivan Sekretarev, Associated Press
KIEV, Ukraine — A Russian military truck broke down the gates of a Ukrainian base in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol and the installation is under siege by Russians on Friday, the Interfax news agency reported. No shots have been fired.
About 100 Ukrainian troops are stationed at the base in Sevastopol, Interfax reported, citing a duty officer and Ukraine's defense ministry. About 20 "attackers" threw stun grenades, the report said.
The Ukrainians barricaded themselves inside one of their barracks, and their commander began negotiations, Interfax said.
Russia has been swept up in patriotic fervor for bringing Crimea, its old imperial jewel, back into its territory — as tens of thousands of people thronged Red Square in Moscow on Friday waving flags and chanting "Crimea is Russia!" while a parliamentary leader promised the peninsula would be welcomed as an "equal subject" of Russia.
Crimea now belongs to Ukraine, but the local parliament has called a March 16 referendum on whether the semi-autonomous region should join Russia, a move President Barack Obama has called a violation of international law.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that sanctions over Russian actions in Crimea could backfire, the ministry said in a statement. In a telephone conversation, Lavrov urged the U.S. not to take "hasty, poorly thought-out steps that could harm Russian-U.S. relations, especially concerning sanctions, which would unavoidably boomerang on the U.S. itself," the statement said.
The strategic peninsula has become the flashpoint in the battle for Ukraine, where three months of protests sent President Viktor Yanukovych fleeing to Russia. Moscow calls the new Ukrainian government illegitimate, and has seized control of Crimea, where it has a major naval base on the Black Sea.
Although President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that Russia has no intention of annexing Crimea, he insisted that its residents have the right to determine the region's status in the referendum.
Valentina Matvienko, the speaker of Russia's upper house of parliament, made clear Friday the country would welcome Crimea if it votes in the referendum to join its giant neighbor. About 60 percent of Crimea's population identifies itself as Russian.
"If the decision is made, then (Crimea) will become an absolutely equal subject of the Russian Federation," Matvienko said during a visit from the chairman of the Crimean parliament, Vladimir Konstantinov. She spoke of mistreatment of Russian-speaking residents in Ukraine's east and south, which has been Moscow's primary argument for possible intervention in Ukraine.
The Russian parliament is scrambling to make it easier for Crimea to join Russia. Russia's constitution allows the country to annex territory only by an agreement "initiated... by the given foreign government." That would entail signing an agreement with the new authorities in Kiev, whom Moscow doesn't recognize.
New legislation would sidestep that requirement, according to members of parliament, who initially said a new bill could be passed as soon as next week, but have since indicated that they will wait until after the referendum.
On the other side of Red Square from the parliament building, 65,000 people gathered at a Kremlin-organized rally in support of Crimea.
"We always knew that Russia would not abandon us," Konstantinov shouted from the stage. He also called on Moscow not to forget other Russia-leaning regions in Ukraine.
"We must not leave the Ukrainian people at the mercy of those Nazi bandits," he said, referring to the new government in Kiev.
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