Pro-Russian militias seize Ukraine's Crimean navy HQ

Pro-Russian militias seize Ukraine's Crimean navy HQ
Pro-Russian protesters remove the gate of Ukrainian navy headquaters as Russian troops stand guard in Crimean city of Sevastopol

SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine - Pro-Russian forces captured Ukraine's naval commander after seizing his headquarters in Crimea on Wednesday as Moscow's grip tightened on the peninsula despite Western warnings its "annexation" would not go unpunished.

Kiev said it was dispatching its defence minister but Crimea's regional leader said he would be barred from entry amid mounting tensions in a region at the epicentre of the worst East-West standoff since the Cold War.

Dozens of despondent Ukrainian soldiers - one of them in tears - filed out of the Ukraine's main navy base in the Black Sea port city of Sevastopol after its storming by hundreds of pro-Kremlin protesters and Russian troops.

"We have been temporarily disbanded," a Ukrainian lieutenant who identified himself only as Vlad told AFP.

"I was born here and I grew up here and I have been serving for 20 years," he said as a Russian flag went up over the base without a single shot being fired in its defence. "Where am I going to go?" A Russian forces' representative said that Ukraine's navy commander Sergiy Gayduk - appointed after his predecessor switched allegiance in favour of Crimea's pro-Kremlin authorities at the start of the month - had been detained.

"He was blocked and he had nowhere to go. He was forced out and he has been taken away," Igor Yeskin told reporters.

A defence ministry spokesman in Crimea said pro-Russian forces also seized the checkpoint set up in front of a Ukrainian military base in the region's western port town of Novoozerne.

He said they used a tractor to ram open the gate and were now in a standoff with Ukrainian troops.

The Ukrainian government dispatched acting Defence Minister Igor Tenyukh and First Deputy Prime Minister Vitaliy Yarema to the region for urgent mediation talks.

But Crimea's self-declared prime minister Sergei Aksyonov told the Interfax news agency while on a visit to Moscow that "no one will let them into Crimea and they will be sent back."

Putin defiant

A defiant President Vladimir Putin had brushed aside global indignation and Western sanctions on Tuesday to sign a treaty absorbing Crimea and expanding Russia's borders for the first time since World War II.

Russia's Constitutional Court ruled unanimously on Wednesday that the "treaty complies with the Russian Constitution." The historic and hugely controversial moment came less than a month after the ouster in Kiev of a Moscow-backed regime by leaders who spearheaded three months of deadly protests aimed at pulling Ukraine out of the Kremlin's orbit for the first time.

Putin responded by winning the right to use force against his ex-Soviet neighbour and then using the help of local militias to seize Crimea - a heavily Russified region the size of Belgium that home to two million people.

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