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Former Ukrainian President Yanukovych blames opponents for Crimea crisis

Ukraine’s ousted president Viktor Yanukovych has blamed his opponents for the crisis in Crimea. Meanwhile, Crimea has voted in favor of adopting a declaration of independence ahead of Sunday’s referendum to join Russia.

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Resisting Russia in Crimea

Speaking from Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on Tuesday, Ukraine's former leader Viktor Yanukovych restated his belief that power in Kyiv had been taken by a "band of ultranationalists and neofascists" and that presidential elections set for May 25 would be "absolutely illegitimate and illegal."

In what was his first public appearance in a week, Yanukovych also blamed his opponents for the crisis on the country's Crimean peninsula, where pro-Russian troops are blockading Ukrainian soldiers.

The predominately Russian-speaking region has

set a referendum on joining Russia

to take place on Sunday. On Tuesday, lawmakers in Crimea voted in favor of adopting a declaration of independence from Ukraine in a precursor to the referendum.

Yanukovych, who surfaced in Russia after leaving Kyiv late last month, also reiterated that he was Ukraine's legitimate president and would soon return. "As soon as the circumstances allow - and I am sure there is not long to wait - I will without doubt return to Kyiv."

He also lashed out against the West for acting as "protectors of the dark forces" currently in power.

He argued that financial aid from the United States to the new Ukrainian government violates US statute. "Your own law gives no right to give money to bandits," he said.

On Tuesday the European Commission agreed to offer Ukraine trade breaks worth about 500 million euros ($675 million) a year as an immediate gesture of support for Ukraine's economy. The EU would remove import duties on a wide range of agricultural and other goods until November this year, by which time the bloc plans to have signed a full trade agreement with Kyiv. The measure would need to be approved by EU leaders and the European Parliament.

Sanctions against Russia?

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has assured ex-Soviet Baltic states that NATO and the EU stand behind them amid rising tensions over the crisis in Ukraine.

"I am here to say that the Baltic states will not be left alone. This is a joint problem for NATO and the EU," Steinmeier said in Tallinn, Estonia, on Tuesday, ahead of talks in neighboring Latvia and Lithuania. All three countries have large Russian minorities.

Steinmeier said the EU would rather avoid confrontation with Russia but would have to prepare a response if the country did not back down.

Russia has officially denied

that its troops are taking part in any blockades and have described armed men posted on the peninsula as Crimea's "self-defense" forces.

His comments come as French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius warned that

sanctions against Russia

could come as early as this week if Moscow did not respond to proposals to solve the crisis.

Fabius told the radio station France Inter that the planned referendum in Crimea on joining Russia would be illegal. "The only legitimate vote is that of May 25 for the president of the republic in Ukraine," he said.

hc,se/rc (Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa)

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