UNITED NATIONS/Kiev/Paris - Agencies - Russia and Ukraine’s foreign ministers arrived separately at the French foreign ministry on Wednesday, raising hopes of direct talks aimed at resolving the crisis in Crimea. Russia’s Sergei Lavrov arrived shortly before acting Ukrainian foreign minister Andriy Deshchytsya, said a journalist working for the media pool travelling with US Secretary of State John Kerry, also in Paris.

Kerry and his counterparts from Britain, France and Germany had earlier pressed Lavrov to meet Deshchytsya as a signal of Moscow’s willingness to de-escalate the curent situation. A UN special envoy trying to ease the situation in Ukraine’s tense Crimea region, Robert Serry, Wednesday decided to cut short his mission on Wednesday after he was threatened by unidentified gunmen, officials said.

But Jan Eliasson, the UN deputy secretary-general denied reports from Ukrainian officials that Serry was kidnapped in Crimea. The special envoy, he said, was threatened by 10 to 15 armed men as he was leaving naval headquarters in Crimea but that he was not abducted. Eliasson said the armed men ordered Serry to leave Crimea and go to the airport. Serry refused but he couldn’t move because his car was blocked so he got out and started walking away, Eliasson said.

Eliasson, who is in the Ukrainian capital 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. “He is now walking back to his hotel after stopping by in a cafe to get guidance to reach the hotel.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday held direct talks on Ukraine in Paris on the sidelines of an international meeting on Lebanon, diplomats said.

Kerry and Lavrov held informal discussions along with their British, French and German counterparts over coffee after lunch at the French presidential palace, a US State Department official said.

A Western diplomatic source said the talks centred around the crisis in Ukraine and lasted for several minutes. It was the first time Kerry and Lavrov had met since a pro-Moscow government in Ukraine was ousted, prompting the de facto takeover of the Crimean peninsula by pro-Moscow forces.

United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon said Wednesday he had telephoned US Secretary of State John Kerry and senior European ministers to discuss Ukraine, calling for all sides to “lower their temperature” to resolve the crisis. “What is important and urgent is that the principle of unity, security and the sovereign integrity of Ukraine be protected,” he said. “I urge all parties to lower their temperature and rhetoric and sit down together to have a constructive dialogue to solve the issue.”  US President Barack Obama said Tuesday Russia was “not fooling anyone” after it claimed it had no troops operating in Crimea, where pro-Russian forces have taken control.

Lavrov reiterated its claim on Wednesday, saying: “If they are the self-defence forces created by the inhabitants of Crimea, we have no authority over them. They do not receive our orders.”

But while stepping up diplomatic pressure Washington - with the support of European heavyweights France, Germany and Britain - is also seeking to offer President Vladimir Putin a way out of the crisis in the ex-Soviet state. But Obama also spoke to German Chancellor Angela Merkel Tuesday and agreed on the importance of a “deescalation” with the deployment of international observers and the start of talks between Moscow and Kiev, a US official said.

“Deescalation” on the Russian side would include its troops going back inside their bases in Crimea, home to Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet since the 18th century, the official added. 

Russian doubts on the legitimacy of Kiev’s interim government would be resolved by elections planned for May.

A diplomatic source told AFP Wednesday that 15 member states of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), including the United States, have agreed to send military observers to Ukraine.

The EU’s biggest powers, France and Germany, want “very firm” steps against Putin while moving towards talks, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.

Merkel called on Russia not to do anything to destabilise the situation, after Putin insisted on Russia’s right to use “all available means” there.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton indefinitely postponed a Kiev trip but was to meet Western and Ukrainian leaders in Brussels and Paris ahead of an emergency Brussels summit.

Announcing the crucial aid package for Ukraine, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said it was “designed to assist a committed, inclusive and reforms-oriented Ukrainian government.”

He will discuss details in Brussels Thursday with interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who will be attending the EU summit called to resolve a crisis first sparked by Yanukovych’s scrapping of a key partnership deal with the bloc. Tensions were highlighted in Crimea Wednesday as gunmen part-seized two missile facilities, in Evpatoria on Crimea’s western coast, and Cape Fiolent near Sevastopol, Ukrainian officials said.

The part-seizure seemed to have occurred without violence however.

At Cape Fiolent Russian soldiers were holding some parts of the base although the missile depot remains in Ukrainian hands, Volodymyr Bova, a defence ministry spokesman in the peninsula, told AFP.

Pro-Moscow forces were also in partial control of the base in Evpatoria, which does not have missiles on its grounds.

Ukrainian soldiers held the command post and control centre there, said another spokesman for the defence ministry in Kiev, Oleksey Mazepa.

Some 20 Russian soldiers, backed by hundreds of pro-Moscow forces, had already tried to occupy the Evpatoria base on Tuesday evening, leading to some skirmishes although no shots were fired.

Crimea is an autonomous area within Ukraine but is located next to Russia and has a Russian ethnic majority. It is strategically vital, offering access to the Mediterranean within a day’s sailing.

Elsewhere on the peninsula, the situation was mostly calm Tuesday.

At the border post of Port Krym on the Strait of Kerch, there was little sign of a mass exodus of ethnic Russians despite Russian media reports to the contrary.

Only three cars were parked outside the station. “There is no panic, people are not fleeing on masse,” said a Ukrainian.

At the entrance to a Ukrainian base nearby, a dozen troops were deployed.

“These are professional soldiers from the Russian army. They arrived three days ago,” said Ukrainian marine commander Alexei Nikoforov, adding the base was still under Ukrainian control.

Markets were mixed on Wednesday as some traders betted on tensions easing in the crisis - but experts warned that a full resolution may be a long time coming.

At the start of trading in Europe, London’s benchmark FTSE 100 index dropped 0.20 per cent, Frankfurt’s DAX 30 slipped 0.28 per cent and Paris’s CAC 40 lost 0.26 per cent compared to Tuesday’s closing values.

In Asia, Tokyo stocks closed 1.20 per cent higher while Hong Kong’s Hang Seng lost 0.34 per cent and Shanghai’s composite index fell 0.89 per cent.

Russia revealed earlier that it sold a record $11.3 billion in foreign currency on Monday to support the ruble.

The day was dubbed “Black Monday” as concern about the Ukraine conflict sent stock markets falling around the world.

Credit Agricole said that while the tension in Ukraine had not passed, it expected market sentiment to remain “relatively healthy” barring further dramatic developments.