UNITED NATIONS, March 14 (Xinhua) -- UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Friday that "it is clear that we are at a crossroads" in the Ukrainian crisis and "if positions continue to harden and rhetoric continues to sharpen, there is a great risk of a dangerous downward spiral."
Crimea, a Ukrainian autonomous republic, is to hold a referendum Sunday on whether to stay in Ukraine or join Russia. The Russian parliament has paved the way for Crimea to become part of Russia, but no decision has been made on annexation.
The interim Ukrainian government insists the voting is unconstitutional since a Ukrainian-wide ballot was necessary for such secession.
Russia already has the headquarters of its Black Sea fleet in the port of Sevastopol and the secretary-general estimated some 20, 000 troops were already in Crimea.
In London, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry failed to reach an accord on the crisis.
Ban spoke on Thursday with Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who was at UN headquarters in New York to address the UN Security Council, and on Friday he spoke with Putin by telephone.
"I remain in regular contact with world leaders in an effort to find a peaceful solution in accordance with the provisions of the UN Charter," Ban told reporters here, recounting that in his Yatsenyuk meeting they discussed "the need for all concerned to respect the law and for calm in an increasingly complex and threatening situation. I reiterated our consistent message that the principles of the Charter -- including sovereignty and territorial integrity -- should be respected." "The Security Council has met many times on the matter," Ban said. "Yet the international community has not yet been able to de- escalate the situation."
He urged against "provocation and hasty decisions in the coming days."
"The focus must be to engage in direct dialogue aimed at agreeing on specific measures that will pave the way towards a diplomatic solution," the secretary-general said.
"Although it has so far proven elusive, the path towards a peaceful resolution of the crisis is still open," Ban said. "Our duty is to seize it. The United Nations will do its part to break the impasse."
After his telephone conversation with Putin, the secretary- general said, "We discussed the need to work toward a durable and fair political solution. We agreed to remain in close touch."
Also on Friday, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic told reporters here via teleconference from Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, how he was barred from entering Crimea by the leadership there. He was dispatched by the secretary-general to the Ukrainian capital to check out accusations of human rights abuses in all of Ukraine.
After traveling around the western parts of Ukraine Simonovic said he was checking out reports of "chronic human rights violations," met with officials, members of civil society, various ethnic groups and "victims of various human rights violations."
"I was told the authorities there (Crimea) would not receive the mission nor insure its security," he said, but added the short visit "was enough to identify that there are some chronic human rights violations in the country, some of them dating until the time of the Soviet Union."
"There are some violations that are specific, that are protest related (against the former Ukrainian government), including excessive use of force," he said. "However, my focus was on current violations and in this respect the situation is particularly troublesome in the eastern part of the country and Crimea."
"What I would like to emphasize is that it seems particularly dangerous that there are various rumors about some large scale human rights violations," Simonovic said, adding that he was asked by members of "civil society" asking "whether it is possible to provide for impartial, reliable UN monitoring. Therefore I am particularly happy the secretary-general received a request by the prime minister (Yatsenyuk) for establishment of UN monitoring in Ukraine."
Simonovic then introduced Armen Harutyunyan, who will head up the UN Human Rights Mission in Ukraine, "of course including Crimea."
"This mission will be, if necessary, investigating human rights violations as they occur, preventing any sort of cover up, but also preventing over blowing human rights violations and using them as a pretext for some sort of manipulations and political agenda oriented to spread fear and insecurity in the country," Simonovic said.
Anti-Kiev leaders in Crimea said there were anti-Semitic attacks and attacks on Russians and Russian speakers following the present Ukrainian government taking over from fugitive president Viktor Yanukovych late last month.
The assistant secretary-general said despite the fact he was barred from Crimea, he and the mission were getting information about Crimea from people still within Crimea and those leaving Crimea and entering the rest of Ukraine. Those unofficial observers included journalists.