MOSCOW (Reuters) - A senior Russian lawmaker strongly suggested on Wednesday that Moscow has sent troops to Ukraine's Crimea region to protect against any "armed aggression" during a referendum on whether Crimea should secede and join Russia.
The statement appeared to contradict assertions from President Vladimir Putin and Russian officials that the armed men who have taken control of facilities in Crimea were local "self-defence" forces.
"There are some military units there that are occupying positions in case of armed aggression, armed expansion from Kiev ... This is not a large-scale military operation," pro-Kremlin lawmaker Leonid Slutsky told Ekho Moskvy radio.
Slutsky did not respond directly to a question about whether his words meant there was a small-scale Russian army operation underway. But he raised what he said was the possibility that "bandit units" could attack eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
"For this reason, in this case, yes, some military units are occupying positions ... because such an incursion, especially during the days when the referendum is taking place and immediately after it, is very probable," he said.
The pro-Russian politicians who took power in Crimea after the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich late last month have declared the Black Sea peninsula a part of Russia and scheduled a referendum on Sunday to cement that decision.
Western states have warned Putin it will be illegal and say Russian forces have already taken "operational control" of the region, where part of Russia's Black Sea naval fleet is based and ethnic Russians make up a small majority.
Western governments have ridiculed previous Russian statements that the armed men in Crimea were local forces.
Putin secured permission from his loyal parliament to send the armed forces into Ukraine if he deems it necessary to protect Russian citizens and Russian-speakers there, but the Kremlin says he has give no such order yet.
Slutsky, the head of a lower parliament house committee on ties with Russian citizens abroad, said "there will be no war" but indicated that protecting people was more important than following the law.
"If on one side of the scale we have the need to protect people and on the other side the position of experts - in quotation marks - far from the conflict zone who say this is not a legal situation, I choose protecting people," he said.
Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Andrew Heavens