Russian troops force their way into Ukrainian base

Russian troops force their way into Ukrainian base
Pro-Russian militiamen beat an unidentified man as Russian soldiers stormed a Ukrainian military air base in the small city of Belbek near the Crimean city of Sevastopol on March 22, 2014.

BELBEK AIRBASE, Crimea - Russian troops used armored vehicles, automatic gunfire and stun grenades on Saturday to seize a Ukrainian airbase in Crimea a day after President Vladimir Putin signed laws completing Russia's annexation of the Black Sea peninsula.

Ukrainian forces also abandoned a naval base after attacks by pro-Russian protesters, and had to surrender two flagship vessels to Russian forces.

The facilities at Belbek and Novofedorovka had been among the last still under Ukrainian control after Moscow's armed takeover and subsequent annexation of Crimea, which has a majority ethnic Russian population and harbors one of Russia's biggest naval bases at Sevastopol.

Russia's seizure of the peninsula after the ousting of Ukraine's pro-Russian president by mass protests has triggered the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War. The United States and the European Union have targeted some of Putin's closest long-time political and business allies with personal sanctions.

At the Belbek airbase, a Reuters reporter said armored vehicles had smashed through the walls of a compound and that he had heard bursts of gunfire and grenades, making the takeover one of the more dramatic of Russia's largely bloodless occupation of Crimea.

Russian forces had already seized Belbek's airstrip and warplanes at the start of the crisis. The compound seized on Saturday contained barracks, arms depots and a command building.

Colonel Yuliy Mamchur, the base commander, said a Ukrainian serviceman had been injured and that he himself he was being taken away by the Russians for talks at an unspecified location. He said the Ukrainians were placing their weapons in storage in the base.

NAVAL ASSETS SURRENDERED

Ukraine's naval base at Novofedorovka, near Sevastopol, was vacated after unarmed pro-Russian protesters attempted to force their way in, Ukrainian military spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov said in a Facebook post.

Russian troops also seized the flagship of the Ukrainian fleet, the Slavutich, which had been prevented from leaving port by Russian tug boats, he said, adding that Ukraine's only submarine, the Zaporizhya, had been taken by Russian forces on Friday.

There have been few casualties since Russian forces started seizing control of military facilities in Crimea, though one Ukrainian serviceman was killed and two others were wounded in a shooting in Simferopol earlier this week.

Ukraine's Defence Ministry said on Friday that Crimea's bases were still formally under its control, but most are now occupied by Russian troops and fly Russia's tricolor flag.

Firework displays on Friday in Crimea and Moscow marked Russia's formal annexation of the peninsula. But Ukrainian residents in Crimea were mostly staying behind closed doors, with some packing their bags to leave.

 

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