The new pro-Russian leader of Ukraine's autonomous Crimea province, Sergiy Aksyonov, has called on Russian president Vladimir Putin for help, as his new government faces pressure from Ukraine's central government in Kiev over proposed local referendum plans to decide the fate of the peninsula.
"I appeal to the president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, to provide assistance in ensuring peace and tranquillity on the territory of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea," Aksyonov said in a statement.
The Russian government in Moscow, which has been accused of sending 6,000 soldiers to occupy Crimea, replied to Aksyonov's request, saying that it would not go unnoticed.
Aksyonov was ushered in as Crimea's new prime minister in an emergency local parliament meeting this week, after former Ukrainian pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovich's government in Kiev collapsed under the pressure of pro-EU protesters, which started in November.
Aksyonov also called on commanders to only obey his orders on a temporary basis, and to resign if they refuse to do so. According tı Russian news agency, Ria Novosti, Aksyonov brought forward the vote to March 30 from the planned date of May 25.
Ukraine's acting president Olexander Turchynov signed a decree on Saturday declaring the appointment of Aksyonov as the premier in the Crimea region illegal. The presidential decree said the decision had violated the Ukrainian constitution. It gave no details.
Crimea, which hosts a Russian fleet at the Black Sea coastal city of Sevastopol, is also home to a population of ethnic Russians who settled there during the Soviet era. However, Crimea is also home to native Muslim Tatars, who became a minority in their own land after former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin forced many of them out in 1944.