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Gunmen seize Crimean parliament
01:51 - Source: CNN

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Kiev, Ukraine CNN  — 

Dozens of armed men seized the regional government administration buildings in Ukraine’s southern Crimean region Thursday and raised the Russian flag in a challenge to the Eastern European country’s new leaders.

Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula with an ethnic Russian majority, is the last big bastion of opposition to the new political leadership in the capital, Kiev, after President Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster Saturday.

The seizure, coming a day after Russia ordered surprise military exercises on Ukraine’s doorstep, has raised fears about the push and pull of opposing allegiances in a country sandwiched between Russia and the European Union.

There’s a broad divide between those who support developments in Kiev – where parliament was voting on an interim West-leaning, national unity government Thursday – and those who back Russia’s continued influence in Crimea and across Ukraine.

Yanukovych issued a defiant statement to Russian news agencies condemning the interim government in Kiev and calling everything happening now in the Ukrainian parliament illegitimate, Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported Thursday.

According to RIA Novosti, anonymous government sources said Thursday that Yanukovych was in Russia and that Russian authorities have accepted his request for security. A warrant has been issued for his arrest in Ukraine.

Yanukovych will give a news conference Friday in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, Russian state media reported. If so, it would be the first time he’s been seen in public since fleeing Kiev. CNN has not independently confirmed Yanukovych’s whereabouts.

Secession fears about Crimea

Concerns are building that the tensions in the autonomous Crimean region might escalate into a bid for separation by its Russian majority.

Pro-Russian members of the Crimean parliament dismissed the government of Crimean Premier Anatolii Mohyliov in a vote of no confidence Thursday, his spokesman Andrey Demartino told CNN. He said Mohyliov would respect the parliament’s decision, despite many procedural irregularities.

The lawmakers also voted for a referendum on May 25 on greater autonomy for the region within Ukrainian territory, he said.

Only pro-Russian lawmakers were present in the parliament building, still occupied by apparently pro-Russian gunmen.

Demartino quoted Mohyliov as saying the responsibility for Crimea’s future stability rests with parliament.

Crimea was handed to Ukraine by the Soviet Union in 1954. Just over half its population is ethnic Russian, while about a quarter are Ukrainians and a little more than 10% are Crimean Tatars, a group oppressed under former Soviet leader Josef Stalin.

Many are struggling to come to grips with the rapid political upheaval, and scuffles have broken out between rival groups – one pro-Russian and the other supporting the new authorities in Kiev – in the Crimean capital of Simferopol.

New Ukraine Prime Minister’s appointment

Back in Kiev, lawmakers approved opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk of the Batkivshchyna, or Fatherland, party as Prime Minister.

Yatsenyuk, who has been both economic and foreign minister in past governments, told reporters that Yanukovych “is no longer the President, he is the person under investigation and accused of crimes against humanity,” state news agency Ukrinform reported.

The new Prime Minister told parliament that he cannot promise to turn things around quickly and that there is likely to be pain in the short term as the cash-strapped country seeks to get back on track.

He also made clear that he believes the country’s future rests in closer ties to Europe, not Russia. “The key task for the Ukrainian government is European integration,” he said.

“It means a visa-free regime for the Ukrainian citizens, and it means an agreement with the European Union on political and economic integration; agreement on a fully fledged free trade zone. The future of Ukraine is in Europe, and Ukraine will become a member of the European Union.”

Yanukovych’s decision to scrap a European Union trade deal in favor of one with Russia prompted the protests, which began in November. Those protests devolved last week into bloody street clashes between demonstrators and security forces that left more than 80 people dead.