More Russians in Crimea; Ukraine holds out hope for settlement

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KIEV, Ukraine - The Ukrainian government said Saturday that there was a glimmer of hope for a peaceful, mediated solution to the crisis in Crimea even as signs emerged of a further strengthening of Russian forces on the strategic Ukrainian peninsula.

Andriy Deshchytsa, Ukraine's acting foreign minister, said that Russia was apparently mulling whether to participate in a "contact group" made up of envoys from various countries, including the United States and European nations, to try to broker a settlement. The European Union has called for the formation of such a group, warning of possible sanctions against Moscow if it does not engage in some kind of dialogue with Ukraine.

"There is a sign for hope," Deshchytsa told reporters, saying that Russia had not categorically ruled out taking part in the group.

"This is a very volatile situation," he added. "We have very many questions about this. Still, this is better than nothing at all."

Even as he spoke, reports from Crimea suggested that Russia was sending in more troops to tighten its hold on the region, where its Black Sea fleet has long been based. Moscow denies that its troops have seized control of Crimea, calling the pro-Russian takeover of government buildings, airports and bases in late February the work of local militias acting independently. But the armed men wear Russian military uniforms - though without insignia - and use Russian military vehicles.

A Ukrainian defense spokesman said in a telephone interview that a few hundred Russian marines landed overnight Friday and began setting up camp between the eastern Crimean ports of Kerch and Feodosia, along the Black Sea shore.

"Russia is expanding its military presence on the peninsula," spokesman Alexei Mazepa said. "There are thousands of Russian troops now in Crimea in addition to the official contingent of the Black Sea fleet. There is no other word to describe the process but as an all-out invasion."

The Associated Press reported seeing a convoy of military trucks, some bearing Russian license plates, rumbling toward Simferopol, the Crimean capital. Seated inside were heavily armed soldiers.

Pro-Russian members of Crimea's regional assembly have scheduled a referendum March 16 on breaking away from Ukraine to join Russia. Although lawmakers in Moscow have applauded the move and said they would welcome the region into the fold, Ukraine and Western countries dismiss the plebiscite as illegal, meaningless and an inexcusable provocation.

"Crimea is and will remain Ukrainian land," Deshchytsa said. "The borders of Ukraine are inviolable."

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov kept up his country's verbal attacks on the new government in Kiev to which Deshchytsa belongs, which recently supplanted that of deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, a Russian ally.

Lavrov insisted that the new government in Kiev was illegitimate and full of radical rightists. He also denied that Russia was a party to the confrontation in the Crimea.

"It is an internal Ukrainian conflict inspired from the outside but not by us," Lavrov said.

Despite the harsh rhetoric, the Russian foreign ministry reported in a short statement on its website that Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin had met with Ukrainian Ambassador Volodymyr Yelchenko on Saturday. The pair discussed their countries' relations "in an atmosphere of frankness," their first such publicly acknowledged diplomatic contact since the Crimean crisis began.

European Union leaders have threatened Russia with economic sanctions if high-level dialogue between Moscow and Kiev fails to begin soon and if tensions on the ground in Crimea do not "de-escalate."

Although the EU has not set a specific deadline for such talks to commence, Simon Smith, the British ambassador to Ukraine, said that the EU was speaking "in terms of days and not weeks."

He also warned that holding the March 16 referendum would by itself constitute an unacceptable escalation of the situation that could then trigger sanctions.

In the U.S., a White House spokesman said that President Obama spoke Saturday to the leaders of Britain, France, Italy and the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia about the crisis in Ukraine.

The leaders, the White House said, agreed that Russia must return its military forces to their bases and allow international observers and human rights monitors onto the Crimean peninsula.