A special United Nations envoy has cut short his mission in Crimea after being threatened by 10 to 15 armed men and ordered to leave the region, where Ukraine and Russia are locked in a tense standoff, UN officials say.
After a confrontation that began as he was leaving naval headquarters and continued at a cafe, envoy Robert Serry was driven to Simferopol airport by the men and was flying to Ukraine's capital to continue his fact-finding mission, the officials said.
Before leaving Simferopol, an Associated Press reporter found Serry in the business class lounge of its airport.
"I'm safe. My visit was interrupted for reasons that I cannot understand," the Dutch diplomat said in a statement to AP on Wednesday (local time). He said nothing more.
Last week, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon dispatched Serry to Kiev as a special envoy because he was the Netherlands' first ambassador to Ukraine and knows the country and many key people.
On Friday, Ban asked Serry to go to Crimea as part of the fact-finding mission. Serry, who is currently the UN Mideast envoy, initially decided against going after consulting with authorities in the region. But UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said Serry later decided it was important to go to Crimea, given the "dramatic circumstances".
Ukrainian officials reported earlier on Wednesday that Serry had been kidnapped. But Eliasson denied that. He said Serry was threatened by the armed men as he was leaving the naval headquarters in Crimea, but was not abducted.
Eliasson said the men ordered Serry to leave Crimea and go to the airport. Serry refused, but he couldn't move because his car was blocked, said Eliasson.
The envoy was later seen in the cafe as armed men in camouflage outfits stood outside. He then got into a van with the men and was taken to Simferopol airport.
Eliasson, who is in Kiev, spoke to reporters at UN headquarters in New York by telephone. He said he had spoken to Serry 20 minutes earlier. Serry "is in good shape physically. He is not kidnapped", Eliasson said.
In the Netherlands, the national broadcaster aired what it said was a brief telephone conversation it had with Serry in which he said: "I am in a difficult situation here in Crimea. At the moment I am trying to find a way out."
It was not clear when the call was made.
A crew from Britain's ITV news was with Serry as he sheltered in the cafe.
"My car was blocked and somebody who did not identify himself was telling me that he had orders to bring me immediately to the airport," Serry told the broadcaster. "I refused." He left the car and walked to the cafe, where the armed men outside prevented him from leaving. He eventually left the cafe through a crowd chanting pro-Russia slogans and was driven to the airport.