Crimean lawmakers call referendum in May that could split Ukraine
Lawmakers in southern region dismiss its pro-Kiev government, and vote to hold a May referendum on Crimea's future status
Fears of a major regional conflict in Crimea pitting Russia against the West have intensified after unknown pro-Russian gunmen seized the regional government and lawmakers there voted to hold a referendum on May 25 on the region's status in Ukraine.
Legislators also voted to dismiss the region's current government, which has backed the new interim authorities in the capital.
Russia sent fighter jets to patrol the border with Ukraine, while reportedly giving shelter to the country's fugitive president as tensions grew yesterday.
Russian news agencies said President Viktor Yanukovych, who was driven out of Kiev by three months of escalating political protests, would hold a news conference today in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. Russian news reports say he is already in Russia.
Oleksandr Turchynov, who stepped in as acting president after Yanukovych's flight, condemned the takeover of government buildings in Crimea as a "crime against the government of Ukraine".
He warned that any move by Russian forces to leave their base in Crimea "will be considered military aggression".
Ukraine's Foreign Ministry also summoned Russia's acting envoy in Kiev for immediate consultations.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had earlier ordered snap military drills near the Ukrainian border, as concerns grew over separatism and economic default.
The country's interim authorities pressed ahead with efforts to restore stability, approving pro-EU Arseniy Yatsenyuk as the new prime minister until presidential polls are held in May.
Watch:Pro-Russian Ukrainians rally outside Crimean parliament
Yatsenyuk warned of growing threats to the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
"We must preserve the integrity of the Ukrainian state, which will one day become a member of the European Union," he said.
Yatsenyuk said Ukraine did not want a fight with Russia, but insisted the country would not accept the secession of the southern Crimea region. He said Crimea "has been and will be a part of Ukraine".
US Secretary of State John Kerry warned that any Russian military operations in Ukraine would be a "grave mistake".
He also stressed that the Ukrainian crisis should not be seen in a cold-war context. "I want to underscore to everybody that this is not Rocky 4. It is not a zero-sum game," Kerry said.
As fears mounted that Ukraine is on the verge of default, Kerry also said Washington was "formulating initially a US$1 billion loan guarantee with some other pieces" in aid.
The new twist in the turmoil in Ukraine - in which about 100 people were killed and Yanukovych was chased from power - sent the Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia, tumbling to a new low against the US dollar.
The International Monetary Fund would send a fact-finding team to Ukraine next week in response to Kiev's request for support, IMF managing director Christine Lagarde said.
Yatsenyuk said the country's future lay in the European Union, while having friendly relations with Russia.
The new prime minister, one of the most prominent leaders of the three-months of anti-government protests, told parliament that Yanukovych had driven the country to the brink of economic and political collapse.
The Guardian, Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse