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A defiant Viktor Yanukovych declares: 'I will continue to fight for Ukraine'

Fugitive president vows to return to Ukraine 'as soon as it is safe to do so'

The ousted president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, gave a defiant press conference from the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don today, declaring he intends to “fight for the future of Ukraine” against “those who try to occupy through fear and terror”.

Speaking in Russian, Mr Yanukovych reiterated he is still the "legitimate leader" but was forced to leave the country because of threats to his life following his ousting last Saturday.

"Nobody overthrew me," he told the press conference. "I was forced to leave Ukraine under a threat to my life and to the lives of my loved ones."

He said he had been driven from power by "young neo-fascist thugs" and pledged to return to Ukraine the moment it was safe to do so.

Mr Yanukovych voiced his surprise at Russia's "restraint" since he was deposed. "I think Russia should, and is obliged, to act, and knowing the character of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, I am surprised he is so restrained and keeping silent."

His statement came as armed men took control of two airports in the Crimea region this morning, in what the interior minister described as a "military invasion". Ukraine's general prosecutor's office has said it will ask Russia to extradite Mr Yanukovych.

He condemned Ukraine’s parliament as illegitimate because votes had been gained from anti-government “militants”. “The elections on the 25 May are illegal and I am not going to be taking part”, he asserted.

Ukraine, he continued, has been taken over by "fascists hooligans" who represent only a minority of the people and "preach violence".

"What's going on now is lawlessness, lack of authority, and terror. Decisions in parliament were taken under duress.

"I can't find words to characterise this new authority. These are people who advocate violence - the Ukrainian parliament is illegitimate."

Mr Yanukovych spoke as the Swiss government ordered financial institutions to freeze any assets belonging to him.

When asked who was responsible for the bloodshed during protests in Independence Square, he insisted shots were only fired at the last minute when police were "massively attacked".

"I never gave any orders for the police to shoot," he said. "There was not a single person who was more interested in avoiding bloodshed than myself."

Criticising Western governments, he said the disturbances during protests and the victims were a result of their irresponsible policies.

He said he has not met with Russian president Vladimir Putin, but has spoken with him on the phone since arriving in Russia and they have agreed to meet.

Asked how he managed to get to Russia, the fugitive president explained he was able to leave Kiev "thanks to patriotic officers who did their duty and helped me to save my life."

Mr Yanukovych is staying in Rostov because he has an old friend there who is providing him with shelter.

He told the conference he will not request military support from Russia because Ukraine should remain as one country.

The situation in Crimea is an “absolutely natural reaction to the gangster coup that happened in Kiev,” he said. “Crimeans do not want to be subordinated," he added, but "any military action in this situation is unacceptable."

Meanwhile, the US warned Russia on Friday not to inflame the situation in Ukraine.

The Secretary of State John Kerry said of a telephone conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov: "While we were told that they are not engaging in any violation of the sovereignty and do not intend to.

"I nevertheless made it clear that that could be misinterpreted at this moment and that there are enough tensions that it is important for everybody to be extremely careful not to inflame the situation and not to send the wrong messages," he added.

The UN Security Council has said it will hold private consultations to discuss the crisis in Ukraine for Friday afternoon.

Additional reporting by agencies