* Merkel says referendum illegal
* Thousands stage rival rallies in Crimea
* Crimea's pro-Russian leaders want to join Russia
* West warns Russia not to annex Crimea
* Russian forces take over border guard posts
By Andrew Osborn
SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine, March 9 Germany's Angela
Merkel delivered a rebuke to President Vladimir Putin on Sunday,
telling him that a planned Moscow-backed referendum on whether
Crimea should join Russia was illegal and violated Ukraine's
Putin defended breakaway moves by pro-Russian leaders in
Crimea, where Russian forces tightened their grip on the
Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula by seizing another border post and
a military airfield.
As thousands staged rival rallies in Crimea, street violence
flared in Sevastopol, when pro-Russian activists and Cossacks
attacked a group of Ukrainians.
Chinese President Xi Jinping called for all parties to
remain calm and urged a political solution to the crisis, during
telephone calls with U.S. President Barack Obama and Merkel.
"The situation in Ukraine is extremely complex, and what is
most urgent is for all sides to remain calm and exercise
restraint to avoid an escalation in tensions," China's foreign
ministry on Monday cited Xi as telling Obama. "Political and
diplomatic routes must be used to resolve the crisis," Xi added.
Russian forces' seizure of the region has been bloodless but
tensions are mounting following the decision by pro-Russian
groups there to make Crimea part of Russia.
In the latest armed action, pro-Russian forces wearing
military uniforms bearing no designated markings sealed off a
military airport in Crimea near the village of Saki, a Ukrainian
Defence Ministry spokesman on the peninsula said.
The operation to seize Crimea began within days of Ukraine's
pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich's flight from the
country last month. Yanukovich was toppled after three months of
demonstrations against a decision to spurn a free trade deal
with the European Union for closer ties with Russia.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk will hold talks
with President Barack Obama in Washington on Wednesday on how to
find a peaceful resolution to the crisis, the White House said.
One of Obama's top national security officials said the
United States would not recognise the annexation of Crimea by
Russia if residents vote to leave Ukraine in a referendum next
"We won't recognise it, nor will most of the world," deputy
national security adviser Tony Blinken said.
Putin declared a week ago that Russia had the right to
invade Ukraine to protect Russian citizens, and his parliament
has voted to change the law to make it easier to annex territory
inhabited by Russian speakers.
Speaking by telephone to Merkel and British Prime Minister
David Cameron, Putin said steps taken by authorities in Crimea
were "based on international law and aimed at guaranteeing the
legitimate interests of the peninsula's population," the Kremlin
A German government statement, however, said the referendum
was illegal: "Holding it violates the Ukrainian constitution and
Merkel also regretted the lack of progress on forming an
"international contact group" to seek a political solution to
the Ukraine crisis and said this should be done urgently.
On Thursday, Merkel said if a contact group was not formed
in the coming days and no progress was made in negotiations with
Russia, the European Union could hit Russia with sanctions such
as travel restrictions and asset freezes.
Merkel, whose country is heavily dependent on Russia oil and
gas, has so far been more cautious than some other nations,
urging Western partners to give Putin more time before punishing
Moscow with tough economic sanctions.
This stance reflects German fears of the geopolitical
consequences of an isolated Russia as much as it does concern
about its business interests and energy ties.
In a round of telephone diplomacy on Sunday, the German
chancellor also spoke with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip
Erdogan, agreeing that Ukraine's sovereignty must be preserved.
Russians took over a Ukrainian border post on the western
edge of Crimea at around 6 a.m. (0400) GMT, trapping about 15
personnel inside, a border guard spokesman said.
The spokesman, Oleh Slobodyan, said Russian forces now
controlled 11 border guard posts across Crimea, a former Russian
territory that is home to Russia's Black Sea fleet and has an
ethnic Russian majority.
At a Ukrainian military base at Yevpatoriya on the coast of
western Crimea there were reports that the Russian forces had
issued an ultimatum to surrender or be stormed. It passed, as
has happened on other occasions at bases across Crimea.
"They are putting psychological pressure on us. It is not
the first ultimatum," Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Lomaka told
Reuters by telephone, saying the Russian forces would not allow
him out of the base.
"We have no fight with them, but we are not going to hand
over our weapons to soldiers of the Russian Federation."
Dimtry Bolbanchyov, 50, who works as a cook on commercial
boats, bicycles 13 kilometres across town to bring the besieged
Ukrainians soldiers food.
"I am doing what I can to boost their morale. Ukraine has
become so weak, we can only hope for help from outside," he
In Sevastopol, several hundred people held a meeting
demanding that Crimea become part of Russia, chanting: "Moscow
is our capital."
Across town at a monument to Ukrainian poet Taras
Shevchenko, violence flared at a meeting to commemorate the
200th anniversary of his birth, when pro-Russian activists and
Cossacks attacked a small group of Ukrainians guarding the event
and the police had to intervene.
Footage from the event showed a group of men violently
kicking one of the Ukrainians as he lay on the ground and a
Cossack repeatedly hit him with a long black leather whip.
In Simferopol, Crimea's main city, pro- and anti-Russian
groups held rival rallies.
Several hundred opponents of Russian-backed plans for Crimea
to secede gathered, carrying blue and yellow balloons the colour
of the Ukrainian flag. The crowd sang the national anthem,
twice, and an Orthodox Priest led prayers and a hymn.
Vladimir Kirichenko, 58, an engineer, opposed the regional
parliament's plans for a vote this month on Crimea joining
Russia. "I don't call this a referendum. It asks two practically
identical questions: Are you for the secession of Ukraine or are
you for the secession of Ukraine? So why would I go and vote?"
Several thousand Russian supporters gathered in Lenin
Square, clapping along to nostalgic Soviet era songs.
Alexander Liganov, 25 and jobless, said: "We have always
been Russian, not Ukrainian. We support Putin."
At a rally in the eastern city of Donetsk, home to many
Russian speakers, presidential candidate Vitaly Klitschko, a
former boxing champion, said Ukraine should not be allowed to
split apart amid bloodshed.
"The main task is to preserve the stability and independence
of our country," he said.
The worst face-off with Moscow since the Cold War has left
the West scrambling for a response, especially since the
region's pro-Russia leadership declared Crimea part of Russia
last week and announced a March 16 referendum to confirm it.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking to Russia's
foreign minister for the fourth day in a row, told Sergei Lavrov
on Saturday that Russia should exercise restraint.
A spokeswoman for the Organization for Security and
Cooperation in Europe said military monitors from the pan-Europe
watchdog had on Saturday been prevented for the third time in as
many days from entering Crimea.
Moscow denies that the Russian-speaking troops in Crimea are
under its command, an assertion Washington dismisses as "Putin's
fiction". Although they wear no insignia, the troops drive
vehicles with Russian military plates.
A Reuters reporting team filmed a convoy of hundreds of
Russian troops in about 50 trucks, accompanied by armoured
vehicles and ambulances, which pulled into a military base north
of Simferopol in broad daylight on Saturday.
Ukrainian troops are performing training exercises in their
bases but there are no plans to send them to Crimea, Interfax
news agency quoted acting Defence Minister Ihor Tenyukh as
saying. Ukraine's military, with 130,000 troops, would be no
match for Russia's. So far Kiev has held back from any action
that might provoke a response.