More Russian troops shipped into Crimea as Ukraine crisis escalates
Russia has shipped more troops and armor into Crimea and repeated its threat to invade other parts of Ukraine, showing no sign of listening to Western pleas to back off from the worst confrontation since the Cold War.
Russia's stock markets tumbled and the cost of insuring its debt soared on the last day of trading before pro-Moscow authorities in Crimea hold a vote to join Russia, a move all but certain to lead to US and EU sanctions on Monday.
The Russian Foreign Ministry, responding to the death of at least one protester in Ukraine's eastern city of Donetsk, repeated President Vladimir Putin's declaration of the right to invade to protect Russian citizens and "compatriots."
"Russia is aware of its responsibility for the lives of compatriots and fellow citizens in Ukraine and reserves the right to take people under its protection," it said.
Ukrainian health authorities say one 22-year-old man was stabbed to death and at least 15 others were being treated in hospital after clashes in Donetsk, the mainly Russian-speaking home city of Ukraine's ousted President Viktor Yanukovich.
Organizers of the anti-Moscow demonstration said the dead man was from their group.
Moscow denies that its forces are intervening in Crimea, an assertion Washington ridicules as "Putin's fiction". Journalists have seen Russian forces operating openly in their thousands over the past two weeks, driving in armored columns of vehicles with Russian license plates and identifying themselves to besieged Ukrainian troops as members of Russia's armed forces.
An international media reporting team watched a Russian warship unload trucks, troops and at least one armored personnel carrier at Kazachaya bay near Sevastopol on Friday morning. Trucks drove off a ramp from the Yamal 156, a large landing ship that can carry more than 300 troops and up to a dozen APCs.
US Secretary of State John Kerry was due to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in London later on Friday in a last-ditch effort to head off the referendum in Crimea, now seen as all but inevitable.
Russian troops seized the southern Ukrainian region two weeks ago as a pro-Moscow regional government took power there. The new regional authorities intend to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a vote described in the West as illegal.
"What we would like to see is a commitment to stop putting new facts on the ground and a commitment to engage seriously on ways to de-escalate the conflict, to bring Russian forces back to barracks, to use international observers in place of force to achieve legitimate political and human rights objectives," a US State Department official said ahead of Kerry's talks.
But Russia has shown no sign of veering from President Vladimir Putin's plan to annex Crimea.
Putin declared on March 1 that Russia had the right to invade its neighbor, a week after its ally Yanukovich fled the Ukrainian capital following three months of demonstrations that ended with about 100 people killed in the final days.
In further signs of Moscow's belligerent posture ahead of the Crimea vote, the Defence Ministry announced it would hold exercises with fighter jets and helicopters over the Mediterranean Sea. On Thursday it announced artillery drills near Ukraine's border.
US and EU sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes on Russian officials and their firms, are now seen as inevitable. The only mystery remaining is who will be on the lists of targets when they are agreed at the start of next week.
US and European officials say the targets will not include Putin or Lavrov, but will include senior figures in the government and members of parliament in an effort to impose hardship on Russia's elite for backing Putin's policies.