UKRAINE’S military scrambled aircraft and paratroops to confront Russian troops landing on a spit of land between Crimea and the mainland, as tensions ahead of the crunch secession vote boiled over.
The Russian show of force saw troops backed by gunships move into the area.
About 60 Russian troops landed on Arbatskaya Strelka, a strip of land running parallel to the east of Crimea.
Assisted by three armoured personnel carriers the Russians began digging in before six Russian helicopters arrived with 60 more servicemen.
The flashpoint was just outside the village of Strelkovoye.
The Ukrainian border guard service said talks between the two sides established that the Russian servicemen were “guarding against possible terrorist acts” against a petrol station.
“At this time, there is no threat of confrontation,” the Ukrainian border guard service said.
The defence ministry had earlier said troops dispatched to Arbatskaya Strelka had “immediately” repelled the incursion.
Ukraine’s foreign ministry said the village had been occupied by Russian forces, though the border guards gave a different version.
“The ministry is making public the Russian incursion and demands the immediate withdrawal of Russian armed forces from Ukraine’s territory,” it said.
Crimea is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet under a post-Soviet deal signed with Ukraine.
The peninsula has been under the control of Russian forces for two weeks.
In a further sign of tension in the region, the USS Truxtun, a US guided-missile destroyer, will carry out a series of exercises with allied ships in the Black Sea, its commander said last night.
Commander Andrew Biehn was briefing reporters aboard the 300-crew destroyer as it lay docked in the Bulgarian port of Varna.
The USS Truxtun last week took part in drills with Romanian and Bulgarian ships a few hundred miles from the Russian forces that entered Ukraine’s Russian-majority territory of Crimea after mass protests toppled Ukraine’s pro-Moscow president.
The US said the exercises were routine and had been planned long before the crisis erupted.
“This exercise was pre-planned several months ago and it was very important because we’re able to work together with the Romanian navy and the Bulgarian navy,” Biehn said.
But they coincided with air drills carried out by US and Polish fighter jets in Poland and Nato reconnaissance flights over eastern Europe.
The naval exercises, carried out in international waters in the south-western part of the Black Sea, did not include live firing.
Both the air and sea manoeuvres have sent a message of resolve to Nato members who are nervous about Russia’s intentions in its former Cold War-era backyard.
Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, warned “there’s a real danger of the threat of invasion of the territory of Ukraine”.
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia has no plans to send in troops.