Crimean Government Buildings, Airports Reportedly Threatened

In Ukraine's Crimea, "unknown armed men" reportedly attempted to seize an Interior Ministry building overnight. The attempt was thwarted, as Washington Post correspondent William Booth tells NPR's Scott Simon.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

We're going to begin this hour with a developing situation in Crimea. Russian Parliment has approved President Vladimir Putin's request to send Russian troops into Ukraine. Now Russia has a naval base in Crimea, a semiautonomous region that is predominately pro-Russian. The request did not specify when or how many troops might be deployed but armed men in uniform are already on the ground.

We spoke with Washington Post correspondent William Booth who is in Crimea earlier today. Thank you for being with us.

WILLIAM BOOTH: Happy to be here.

SIMON: Who are the unknown armed men? Who are the self-defense squads? What can you see on the ground?

BOOTH: Well, the story out of Moscow on this seems a little sketchy at this point. There are self-defense units now all over Crimea, middle-aged guys waving Russian flags. They're not armed. They're standing in front of a Crimea ministry building I'm standing in front of right now. But today's news is that the Crimea's new minister announced that a lot of the soldiers, the mystery soldiers, that we saw yesterday and a little bit the night before, are Russian troops from the Black Sea fleet.

SIMON: So they are Russian troops. There were some confusion about that but you can confirm they are Russian troops.

BOOTH: There is still confusion but the Crimean prime minister said they were Russian troops. The situation here is a little chaotic because we have three governments talking sort of at and past each other. We have Moscow and then we have the new government in Kiev, the opposition folks who got out Yanukovych, and then we have the Crimea folks. So they are issuing statements and making denials and charges at each other, so they sometimes talk past each other a bit.

SIMON: What can you tell us about the status of things like the airports or major government buildings? Who seems to be in control of those?

BOOTH: The armed troops in green camouflage who we now think are Russians are standing in front of most major government buildings, both the Ukrainian ones and the regional government of Crimea. The airport in Simferopol was shut down last night; they closed the airspace. And I haven't been by there yet this morning but what we're told no flights are coming or going out of Crimea.

Also, the smaller airports have been occupied and are also shut down. There's one near Sevastopol that's a military and a civilian airport, and that was shut down yesterday.

SIMON: Now, is there any chance - as the Russian government, I guess suggested a number of hours ago - that this was all part of a routine military exercise or something like that?

BOOTH: I would be suspicious of that since I don't think their routine exercise would include standing in front of government buildings in downtown Sevastopol. Some of the movements of troops yesterday were explained as that. We saw armored personnel carriers on the highways. We pulled over, we asked, hey, who are you guys? Usually they wouldn't talk but one group of guys said: Yeah, where Russian Federation troops. We're from Russia. We're here to help. Other guys and other uniformed wouldn't answer questions at all.

But it doesn't look to me like a normal military exercise. It looks like Russian troops working with the Crimea government are occupying and standing in front of government buildings.

SIMON: Mr. Booth, what's it like on the streets? Are people alarmed?

BOOTH: No, people are - the crowd downtown today are lighter than usual my translator, Oksana, tells me. But, you know, there are kids on tricycles, there's lots of pro-Russia sentiment - people are waving flags and Russian flags - people are shopping, everything is open, it's...


BOOTH: ...calm for such a surreal moment.

SIMON: William Booth, of The Washington Post, thank you very much.

BOOTH: Thank you.

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