- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 8, 2014

From his weekend vacation spot in the Florida keys, President Obama called several European leaders Saturday about the crisis in Ukraine, even as Russia beefed up its military occupation of the contested Crimea region.

Mr. Obama, ensconced in an exclusive resort in Key Largo, spoke individually by phone with British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. The leaders “reiterated their grave concern over Russia’s clear violation of international law and reaffirmed their support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the White House said.

The president also spoke on a conference call with the leaders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, former members of the Soviet bloc where the U.S. is supporting additional NATO air “policing” efforts in response to Russia’s actions.

But Russia reinforced its armed presence in Crimea Saturday, with dozens of military trucks transporting heavily armed soldiers. Moscow’s foreign minister ruled out any dialogue with Ukraine’s new authorities, whom he dismissed as the puppets of extremists.

Vladislav Seleznyov, a Crimean-based spokesman for the Ukrainian armed forces, told Associated Press that witnesses had reported seeing amphibious military ships unloading around 200 military vehicles in eastern Crimea on Friday night after apparently having crossed the Straits of Kerch, which separates Crimea from Russian territory.

Russian forces invaded the strategic Crimea peninsula of Ukraine a week ago, a move that the U.S. and its allies say violated international law.

Russian President Vladimir Putin says he has the right to protect Russian interests in Crimea.

The regional parliament in Crimea has set a March 16 vote on leaving Ukraine to join Russia. Mr. Obama says such a vote would violate international law.

The White House said Mr. Obama, in his phone calls, “welcomed the strong, unified stance of the United States and the European Union regarding Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine.”

All of the heads of state agreed with Mr. Obama on the need for Russia to pull back its military forces to their bases, allow for international observers in the Crimean peninsula, and move forward with plans for direct negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, the White House said.

“The leaders rejected the proposed referendum in Crimea as a violation of Ukraine’s constitution and underscored that all decisions about the future of Ukraine must include the government in Kyiv,” the statement said. “They also discussed the need for the international community to provide strong support to the government of Ukraine as it works to stabilize its economy and prepares for elections in May.”

• This article is based in part on wire-service reports.

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