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Ukraine’s Defence Minister says Moscow has sent 6,000 troops into the country, as it was confirmed Russian soldiers are on the streets in the southeastern region of Crimea.

The country’s military are on high alert and border guard vessels are being deployed amid the deepening crisis, with reports Russian forces are trying to seize control of an anti-aircraft missile base.

Ukraine’s border guard service said about 300 armed men were attempting to seize its main headquarters in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol.

The pro-Moscow Prime Minister of Crimea Sergei Aksenov, who appealed to Russia for help in keeping the peace there, has confirmed service personnel from the Black Sea Fleet, which is based in Sevastopol, were guarding key buildings.

And in an apparent orchestrated move, a referendum on whether residents in Crimea want greater independence from Ukraine has been brought forward by two months to March 30.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry has also claimed there had been an overnight attempt by “unidentified gunmen sent from Kiev” to seize the offices of Crimea’s interior ministry.

It said in a statement: “As a result of the treacherous provocation, there are wounded.

“With decisive actions by self-defence groups, the attempt to seize the interior ministry building was averted.

“This confirms the desire of prominent political circles in Kiev to destabilise the peninsula.”

Russia’s Lower House of Parliament, the Duma, has called on President Vladimir Putin “to take measures to stabilise the situation in Crimea”.

And in a further ratcheting up of pressure on Ukraine, Russia said it saw “no reason” to extend a previously agreed gas discount due to unpaid debts.

To add to Ukraine’s financial woes, the country’s finance minister said it is unlikely to receive financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund before April due to the continuing turmoil.

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