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People march under a giant Russian flag during a pro-Russian rally in Simferopol, Crimea February 27, 2014.

David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters

With gunmen occupying the top floor of the building and the Russian flag flying from the roof, Crimea's parliament passed a motion on Thursday calling for a referendum on this Russian-speaking region's future as part of Ukraine.

This Black Sea peninsula's move toward autonomy – or some kind of association with Russia – was accompanied by fresh sabre-rattling from the Kremlin, which put fighter jets on alert a day after announcing snap military drills along its border with Ukraine. And, in his first statement in almost a week, the deposed Viktor Yanukovych said he had taken refuge in Russia from "extremists" in Ukraine who had threatened him with bodily harm.

Moscow has denounced last week's fall of Mr. Yanukovych and the rise of pro-Western forces in Kiev as an armed coup, and has refused to recognize the new government. Crimea was part of Russia for two centuries before Nikita Khrushechev transferred it to Soviet Ukraine in 1954, and the strategic region is still home to the warships of Russia's Black Sea Fleet.

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"I am addressing the Russian Black Sea Fleet command with a demand: all military servicemen should stay within the boundaries of the territories stipulated by the agreement," Ukraine's interim president, Oleksandr Turchynov, said Thursday. "Any movement of military servicemen with weapons outside this territory will be viewed as military aggression."

North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen used his Twitter account to warn Russia "not to take any action that can escalate tension or create misunderstanding."

Foreign Minister John Baird arrived in Kiev, and was expected to meet Friday with Mr. Turchynov and newly chosen Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk – who was formally appointed Thursday – to express Canada's support for the post-revolutionary government.

Russian media reported that Mr. Yanukovych would hold a press conference Friday in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. Ukraine's new government has asked that the International Criminal Court open a case against Mr. Yanukovych for his role in violence that saw more than 80 people killed in Kiev last week.

"I still consider myself to be the legitimate leader of the Ukrainian state, elected on the basis of Ukrainian citizens' free will. … There is rampant extremism on the streets of our country. My supporters and I receive threats of inflicting bodily harm," he said in a statement carried by Russia's official Itar-Tass newswire. "It becomes evident that people in southeastern Ukraine and in the Crimea do not accept anarchy and lawlessness in the country, when ministers are elected by the crowd in the city square."

The circumstances of the Crimea referendum announcement were bizarre, with the unknown gunmen seizing control of parliament in the morning, and making no demands. Later, with the gunmen still in the building, and police making no move to oust them, 64 of the 100 regional deputies entered parliament and voted to hold the referendum. Ukraine's Interfax newswire reported that deputies had to surrender their mobile phones to the gunmen before entering to vote.

A crowd of several thousand Crimean Tatars, an ethnic group that has largely supported the uprising in Kiev, blocked parliament on Wednesday to prevent a similar vote from taking place. But on Thursday, Tatar leaders told the community to stay away parliament, fearing a violent confrontation with the pro-Russian gunmen.

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The referendum was set for May 25, the same day the country is scheduled to hold presidential elections. It wasn't clear what the specific referendum question would be, but many in Crimea say they would rather join Russia than remain part of Ukraine.

Several hundred pro-Russian demonstrators cheered lustily outside parliament when the referendum was announced, waving Russian flags and chanting, "Russia! Russia!"

"We don't want fascism like they have in Kiev and Lvov. … We want to be with Russia, our historical motherland," said Pavel Yeremenko, a 52-year-old seaman from Sevastopol, the port that hosts the warships of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. He was carrying the banner of Russian Bloc a pro-Moscow political movement, and carrying a hardhat he said he would don if violence broke out.

Several protesters said they felt the armed takeover of the Crimean parliament was no different than the way power had been transferred in Kiev.

"If the bandits from western Ukraine can take power by force, why can't we take power by force?" asked Natalya Morozova, a 60-year-old retiree who said she had not received her pension this month because of the chaos in the capital.

The gunmen who seized control of the regional parliament were widely believed to be members of Berkut, a riot police force that was disbanded this week by the new government in Kiev, which blamed the force for much of the bloodshed in Kiev.

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Serhiy Kunitsyn, a former Crimean prime minister who is now an opposition MP in Kiev, told the national parliament that 120 people who were involved in the takeover of the Crimean government buildings.

"These professionally trained people are armed. They brought weapons - automatic weapons, grenade launchers, and machine guns," Mr. Kunitsyn said.

Aleksei Chaliy, the new mayor of Sevastopol has declared that the Berkut were welcome to continue as the city's municipal police force. Mr. Chaliy is a Russian citizen, and 70 per cent of the city's population are ethnic Russians.

A checkpoint manned by men who describe themselves as volunteers from "Sevastopol citizens' self-defense forces" has been set up on the road between Simferopol and Sevastopol. The men flew the Russian flag over their position as they forced cars heading towards the port city to slow for inspection.

The Globe and Mail saw a Russian armoured personnel carrier parked at the checkpoint on Wednesday. On Thursday the APC was gone, but a sign at the checkpoint warned "those who approach with the sword will die by the sword."

Russian armoured personnel carriers have been repeatedly spotted in recent days moving around Crimea, which hosts several Russian military bases. Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement that "any movement of Black Sea Fleet armoured vehicles has been made in strict compliance with the basic agreements."

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Under a set of agreements between Moscow and Kiev, Russia is required to notify Ukraine's Defence Ministry before any movement of military equipment or personnel across Ukrainian territory.

Follow me on Twitter: @markmackinnon

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