Ukraine crisis: Viktor Yanukovych decries Crimea 'tragedy'

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Media captionMr Yanukovych said that had he been in power, he would have tried to prevent Crimea's annexation

Ukraine's deposed President Viktor Yanukovych says Russia's annexation of Crimea is "a tragedy" and he hopes it will become part of Ukraine again.

In an interview with the Associated Press and Russian channel NTV, he also said he gave no orders to open fire on protesters in the capital, Kiev.

Mr Yanukovych fled Kiev after protests in which more than 100 people died.

Meanwhile, a top Nato commander says Russian forces could seize swathes of Ukraine in three to five days.

Moscow is believed to have massed tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine's eastern border in recent days, causing alarm in Kiev and the West.

General Philip Breedlove, Nato's top commander in Europe, said all the elements were in place for a rapid advance, including armour, mechanised units, helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and all the logistics needed to back them up.

Russia annexed Crimea in southern Ukraine last month following a controversial referendum branded illegal by Kiev and the West. The peninsula has a majority ethnic Russian population.

Moscow has insisted it has no intention of invading Ukraine.

'Protest vote'

Mr Yanukovych, now in Russia, said he would try to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to return Crimea to Ukraine.

"Crimea is a tragedy, a major tragedy," he said.

"We must set such a task and search for ways to return to Crimea on any conditions, so that Crimea may have the maximum degree of independence possible... but be part of Ukraine."

Mr Yanukovych said had he remained in power, he would have tried to prevent the referendum, calling it a "form of protest" against Ukraine's new pro-Western leaders.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Ukrainian forces have been holding training exercises as tension with Russia mounts
Image copyright AFP
Image caption The Crimean port of Sevastopol is home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet

More than 100 people were killed in street protests in Kiev in January and February, many of them by sniper fire, but Mr Yanukovych said he had no role in their deaths.

He said gunfire came from the opposition camp, not from riot police, and that responsibility for the high number of deaths lay with the opposition.

"I personally never gave any orders to shoot," he said.

"As far as I know the weapons were never given to those special troops who took part in defending the state buildings and the state bodies - they just complied with their orders."

He added: "My principles which I always follow are that no authority, no power is worth a drop of blood."

Unrest in Ukraine began late last year when Mr Yanukovych rejected an association agreement with the EU in favour of closer ties with Russia.

The interim government in Kiev that took power after Mr Yanukovych fled has scheduled a presidential and some mayoral elections for 25 May.

Reports that Moscow has massed troops along the eastern border with Ukraine has sparked fears of further incursions into parts of the country with large Russian-speaking populations.

The Kremlin has said it wants to protect ethnic Russians from "fascists" in Kiev.

'Grave threat'

In an interview with Reuters and The Wall Street Journal, Gen Breedlove described the situation on the border as "incredibly concerning".

"This is a very large and very capable and very ready force," he said.

"We think it is ready to go and we think it could accomplish its objectives in between three and five days if directed to make the actions."

Nato foreign ministers have agreed to suspend all practical civilian and military co-operation with Russia.

Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has described Moscow's annexation of Crimea as the gravest threat to European security for a generation.

Foreign ministers from the 28-member Nato bloc, gathering in Brussels, are also looking at options including putting permanent military bases in the Baltic states to reassure members in Eastern Europe.

Russia's actions in Ukraine have caused concern in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which were part of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.