* Armed men seize buildings in Crimea, run up Russian flag
* Acting president warns Moscow against Crimea troop moves
By Alessandra Prentice and Alissa de Carbonnel
SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine, Feb 28 The United States
told Russia to demonstrate in coming days that it was sincere
about its promise not to intervene in Ukraine, after armed men
seized the regional parliament in a mainly ethnic Russian region
and raised the Russian flag.
Crimea, the only Ukrainian region with an ethnic Russian
majority, is the last big bastion of opposition to the new
leadership in Kiev since pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich
was ousted at the weekend.
The region also provides a base for the Russian navy's Black
Sea Fleet. Kiev's new rulers said any movement by Russian forces
beyond the base's territory would be tantamount to aggression.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Russian Foreign
Minister Sergei Lavrov had assured him by telephone that Moscow
would not intervene militarily in its neighbour.
"We believe that everybody now needs to take a step back and
avoid any kind of provocations," Kerry said at a joint news
conference with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
"We want to see in the next days ahead that the choices
Russia makes conform to this affirmation we received today."
Yanukovich, who fled Kiev after scores of demonstrators were
killed last week, was expected to hold a news conference in
Russia on Friday. He has declared he is still Ukraine's
president, but has lost support even in regions where the ethnic
Ukrainian population mainly speaks Russian as he does.
Crimea, which was administered as part of Russia within the
Soviet Union until it was transferred to Ukraine in 1954, is a
more tendentious question. Separatism there has often flared up
at times of tension between Moscow and Kiev.
The apparent armed siege of the Crimean parliament by
unidentified gunmen created a bizarre scene: there was no
official explanation of who the gunmen were, and they issued no
demands. Police hardly seemed to treat the event as a major
Instead, they casually guarded the building below its
Russian flag while hundreds of pro-Russian demonstrators
assembled, including elderly people who danced cheerfully to
recordings of Soviet martial music.
The regional parliament even managed to hold a session
inside the building on Thursday despite the siege, where it
voted to stage a referendum on "sovereignty" for Crimea.
By the early hours of Friday, police guarding the building
would not say what had happened to the gunmen or whether they
were even still there. Russia's flag still flew from its roof
and lights were on in the windows of its top floor.
Oleksander Turchinov, Ukraine's acting president, warned
Russia not to move personnel beyond areas permitted by treaty
for those using its naval base: "Any military movements, the
more so if they are with weapons, beyond the boundaries of this
territory will be seen by us as military aggression," he said.
Russia has repeatedly declared it will defend the interests
of its citizens in Ukraine, and on Wednesday announced war games
near the border involving 150,000 troops on high alert. Kerry
said Lavrov told him the war games were pre-planned.
Although Moscow says it will not intervene by force, its
rhetoric since the removal of its ally Yanukovich has echoed the
runup to its invasion of Georgia in 2008, when it sent its
troops to protect two self-declared independent regions and then
recognised them as independent states.
Witness accounts suggest those who captured the Crimean
parliament building in the early hours of Thursday were
pro-Russian gunmen of some kind.
"We were building barricades in the night to protect
parliament. Then this young Russian guy came up with a pistol
... we all lay down, some more ran up, there was some shooting
and around 50 went in through the window," Leonid Khazanov, an
ethnic Russian, told Reuters.
"I asked them what they wanted, and they said 'To make our
own decisions, not to have Kiev telling us what to do'."
Ukraine's new interior minister, Arsen Avakov, said the
attackers had automatic weapons and machine guns.
The regional prime minister said on Thursday he had spoken
to the people by telephone, but they had not made any demands or
said why they were there. They had promised to call him back but
had not done so, he said.
With the siege apparently still under way, the regional
parliament met in another part of the building and voted to hold
its referendum on May 25, the day Ukraine plans to elect a new
president to replace Yanukovich. The measure, if passed, would
declare Crimea sovereign, with its relationship to the rest of
Ukraine governed by treaty.
The pro-Russian crowd outside cheered the news.
"In three months we will have a chance to choose our
future," said Yuri Lukashev, 58, a carpenter standing in a group
of other ethnic Russian men outside the building late at night.
"We're celebrating our victory. It's a chance for peace in
Crimea, guaranteed by Russia."
However, elsewhere there was some anger at the invasion of
the regional parliament and the flying of the Russian flag.
Alexander Vostruyev, 60, in a leather cap and white beard,
said: "It's disgrace that the flag of a foreign country is
flying on our parliament ... It's like a man coming home to find
his wife in bed with another man."