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    Yanukovych Says He Remains Ukraine's Leader

    Ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych blamed his opponents Tuesday for Crimea's moves to break away from Ukraine and said he remains the country's president and commander-in-chief.

    Mr. Yanukovych spoke from Rostov-on-Don, Russia, in his second public appearance since he fled Kyiv last month following months of anti-government protests.

    Denouncing Ukraine's interim authorities as "extremists," the ousted leader called the new government's planned May 25 elections "illegitimate" and "illegal."



    "I declare that the elections for the president which are scheduled to be held on May 25 by a clique which seized power through an unconstitutional coup are absolutely illegitimate and illegal. They don't correspond to article 103 of Ukraine's constitution. Any organ of power that is formed as a result of those illegal elections will also be illegitimate and illegal."



    He also blamed the interim government for the tensions in Crimea and elsewhere in southern and eastern Ukraine.



    "Ukraine is going through a difficult time now. Your actions have led to the fact that the Crimea is splitting off, that even at the point of a submachine gun, the population of the southeast is demanding respect for themselves and their rights."



    Mr. Yanukovych had strong words for the United States and its offer of $1 billion in loan guarantees to the interim government, saying the U.S. government does not have the right to "give money to bandits."

    Meanwhile, Crimea's regional legislature adopted a "declaration of independence" Tuesday stating that the peninsula will declare itself an independent state if Crimean residents vote Sunday for the region to join Russia as a constituent republic. Ukraine's national government has said that all of Ukraine must vote on any referendum allowing Crimea to join Russia.

    And acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov announced the formation of a new National Guard in response to the conflict with Russia. Ukraine's interim leaders blamed mismanagement by the previous administration, that of ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, for the weakness of Ukrainian forces. The interim administration says Ukraine presently has only about 6,000 in its combat-ready infantry.

    Russia and the West are locked in a tense standoff over seizure of the Ukrainian peninsula by pro-Russian forces. The crisis in Crimea began late last month after Mr. Yanukovych's ouster.

    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Tuesday on the ongoing situation in Ukraine.

    A State Department spokeswoman said Kerry told his Russian counterpart it is "unacceptable" that Russian forces and "irregulars" continue to take matters into their own hands in Ukraine. Kerry said the U.S. respects the fact that Russia has interests in Crimea, but added that it does not justify military intervention in the region, particularly the use of force.

    French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told France Inter radio Tuesday the West could impose sanctions against Russia as early as this week if Moscow does not respond positively to proposals to calm the crisis in Crimea.



    Fabius said the sanctions could include freezing the assets of individual Russians or Ukrainians and sanctions on travel visas.

    But if the Russians respond favorably to the proposals, the French foreign minister said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will go to Moscow and sanctions will not be immediate.

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has complained that the U.S. proposals amount to "moving forward on the basis of a situation born out of a state coup."

    Moscow and Mr. Yanukovych have consistently described his ouster as an "unconstitutional" overthrow. The ousted leader reiterated Tuesday that he will return to Kyiv as soon as circumstances allow it.

    The situation is further complicated by the Crimea region's plans to hold a March 16 referendum on joining Russia -- a vote Fabius and other Western leaders have called "illegal."

    In Kyiv Monday, U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt reiterated that Washington also will not recognize the results of the Crimean referendum.

    NATO said Monday it is deploying reconnaissance aircraft along the borders of member states Poland and Romania to monitor the crisis in Ukraine. It said the deployment is designed "to enhance the alliance's situational awareness." The U.S. has also initiated a new deployment of fighter jets to the region.

    Moscow has officially denied that its troops are participating in the occupation of Crimea. But witnesses say military personnel in unmarked uniforms arrived in Russian-registered vehicles earlier this month and freely admit to being Russian.

    On Wednesday, U.S. President Barack Obama will meet Ukraine's interim prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, at the White House. A White House statement Monday said the visit will highlight the United States' strong support for the people of Ukraine, and will include talks on economic aid and preparations for May elections in Ukraine.

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