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UN envoy threatened by 15 gunmen in stand-off

A UNITED Nations special envoy visiting Crimea was threatened by 10 to 15 armed men yesterday and ordered to leave the region where Ukraine and Russia are locked in a tense standoff.

An Associated Press reporter later found Robert Serry in the business class lounge of Simferopol airport.

"I'm safe. My visit was interrupted for reasons that I cannot understand," the Dutch diplomat said.

Ukrainian officials had reported that Mr Serry had been kidnapped, but Jan Eliasson, the UN deputy secretary-general, denied that.

He said Mr Serry was threatened by the armed men as he was leaving naval headquarters in Crimea, but was not abducted. Mr Eliasson said the men ordered Mr Serry to leave Crimea.

Mr Serry refused, but he could not move because his car was blocked, he said.

The envoy was later spotted by reporters in a coffee shop as men in camouflage outfits stood outside. He got into a van with the men and was taken to Simferopol airport.

Meanwhile, pro-Russian citizens in Crimea must be willing to replace armed forces with international observers if the new government allows a vote for more autonomy, Ukraine's foreign minister said yesterday ahead of a possible meeting with Moscow's most senior diplomat.

Andriy Deshchytsia, in an interview before he planned to head to the airport for a flight home, also struck a surprisingly conciliatory tone towards Russia, whose troops have taken over the Crimean government.

Minutes later, he said he would remain in Paris for the night after US Secretary of State John Kerry renewed prospects for a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Attempts earlier had failed to arrange what would be the highest-level meeting between officials from Russia and the new government in Kiev since the crisis began.

It was the latest twist as western officials sought to ease the stand-off between Russian president Vladimir Putin and the upstart government in Ukraine that sent its Moscow-friendly president packing last month.