By Marie-Louise Gumuchian and Ingrid Formanek, CNN
Dozens of armed men seized the regional government administration building and parliament in Ukraine’s southern Crimea region Thursday and raised the Russian flag, in a challenge to the eastern European country’s new leaders.
The incident, 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.
A broad divide has emerged between those who support what is going on in Kiev — where parliament was voting on an interim West-leaning government Thursday — and those who back Russia’s continued influence in Crimea and across Ukraine.
“I’m concerned about developments in #Crimea. I urge #Russia not to take any action that can escalate tension or create misunderstanding,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen tweeted Thursday.
In turn, Russian Foreign Ministry said the Kremlin will “give a tough and uncompromised response to violations of compatriots’ rights by foreign states.”
It was not immediately known who was occupying the buildings in the regional capital Simferopol. The head of the region, premier Anatolii Mohyliov, told CNN the gunmen were refusing to speak with him, telling him he had no authority.
The men, who stormed the building early Thursday morning, had made no demands and it was not clear what they wanted, he said.
He said there are no civilians in the building, and that “the situation is under control.”
He added government security forces, who were outside the building, would not use force or weapons to take over the buildings.
“All police in Ukraine have been ordered to be prepared,” acting Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov wrote on his Facebook page. “Orders have been issued to create a cordon around the Parliament in Crimea and to avoid shooting and violence.”
Scuffles break out
Tensions have simmered in the Crimea region since Yanukovych’s ouster.
Scuffles broke out Wednesday as the mood soured among the thousands rallying in front of the Crimean parliament building.
One group waved Ukrainian flags and shouted “Crimea is not Russia,” while the other held Russian flags aloft and shouted “Crimea is Russia.”
As the crowd became more agitated, a line of police moved in to divide the groups. Local leaders sought to calm the mood, urging the protesters to go home and resist provocations.
Meanwile, Russia ordered military exercises near Ukraine Wednesday. The timing of the move prompted speculation about Kremlin’s motives.
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said the exercises were to check “combat readiness.” And U.S. military inteligence saw no immediate indication the Russians were preparing for any offensive military action in Ukraine, two U.S. officials said.
Instead, the officials said intelligence suggests Russia is “repositioning” up to half a dozen Russian ships near the Ukrainian port city of Sevastapol in case they’re needed to respond if Russian interests are threatened.
Sevastapol is home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet. About 60% of the population in the city is Russian.
Concerns were heightened in the region when the Crimean Parliament convened a previously unscheduled session Wednesday, amid local media reports that secession might be on the agenda.
But the Parliament Speaker Volodimir Konstantinov dismissed the reports as “rumors,” and urged residents to not be provoked.
In Sevastopol, residents told CNN they were angry that Yanukovych has been forced out and fear that they will be oppressed by the country’s new leaders.
Many are struggling to come to grips with the rapid political upheaval.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry has accused Ukraine’s lawmakers of discriminating against ethnic Russians by excluding them from the reform process.
In the capital Kiev, Ukraine’s parliament met to vote in a new government Thursday after protest leaders named the ministers they want to form a new cabinet.
Leaders of the popular demonstrations that toppled Yanukovych named former economy minister Arseny Yatseniuk as their choice to head a new interim government.
In a display of people power, the announcement of Yatseniuk and candidates for other key ministries was made Wednesday after protest leaders addressed crowds on Independence Square, the heart of the protests.
The crowd, some of them dressed in camouflage, cheered as the names were read out.
Lawmakers face the challenge of forming a body that genuinely represents all the main political parties, despite their widely divergent views.
Presidential and local elections are due May 25. Opposition leader and former heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko will run for the presidency, his press secretary said.
Last week, the bloody street clashes between demonstrators and security forces left more than 80 dead, the deadliest violence in the country since it gained independence when the Soviet Union collapsed 22 years ago.
Russia contends Yanukovych was driven out by an “armed mutiny” of extremists and terrorists. A warrant has been issued for his arrest, but his whereabouts remain unknown.
While Yanukovych is on the run, the diplomatic wheels have been set in motion within the international community. One key concern is cash-strapped Ukraine’s perilous financial position.
Yanukovych’s decision to scrap a European Union trade deal in favor of one with Russia prompted the protests, which began in November.
CNN’s Ingrid Formanek reported from Kiev, and Marie-Louise Gumuchian wrote from London. CNN’s Phil Black, Frederik Pleitgen, and Laura Smith-Spark also contributed to this report, as did journalist Azad Safarov