Crimean militias storm bases, arrest Ukraine navy chief

19th March 2014, Comments 0 comments

Pro-Russian forces seized two Crimean navy bases and captured Ukraine's naval chief on Wednesday as Moscow tightened its grip on the flashpoint peninsula despite Western warnings its "annexation" would not go unpunished.

Dozens of despondent Ukrainian soldiers -- one of them in tears -- filed out of the Ukraine's main navy headquarters in the historic Black Sea port city of Sevastopol after it was stormed by hundreds of pro-Kremlin protesters and masked 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.

A regional prosecutor's statement said Gayduk was suspected of "ordering Ukrainian military units... to open fire on peaceful civilians".

Defence ministry officials said Russian forces also seized a military base in Crimea's western port town of Novoozerne after using a tractor to ram open its main gate.

An AFP reporter saw about 50 Ukrainian servicemen file out of the base under the watchful eye of Russian soldiers while pro-Moscow militias lowered the Ukrainian flag.

The Ukrainian government's loss of control of the heavily Russified region was underscored further when Defence Minister Igor Tenyukh was forced to cancel an urgent visit aimed launching Crimean mediation talks when the local authorities threatened to turn back his plane.

- 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" after a disputed Sunday referendum in Crimea showed nearly 97 percent supporting a shift from Ukrainian to Kremlin rule. Kiev and the West have dismissed the referendum as illegal.

Putin's hugely controversial treaty signing came less than a month after the ouster in Kiev of pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych by leaders who spearheaded three months of deadly protests aimed at pulling Ukraine out of the Kremlin's orbit.

Putin responded by winning the right to use force against his ex-Soviet neighbour and then employing the help of local militias to seize Crimea -- a region the size of Belgium that is home to two million people as well as Russia's Black Sea Fleet.

The explosive security crisis on the EU's eastern frontier now threatens to reopen a diplomatic and ideological chasm between Russia and Western powers not seen since the tension-fraught decades preceding the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Wednesday that next week's meeting of leaders from the Group of Seven (G7) most developed economies must discuss Russia's permanent expulsion from the wider G8 political grouping to which Moscow was accepted in 1998 as its reward for pursuing a democratic course.

"I think it's important we move together with our allies and partners, and I think we should be discussing whether or not to expel Russia permanently from the G8 if further steps are taken," Cameron told parliament.

United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon will meet with Putin in Moscow on Thursday before holding talks with Ukraine's interim leaders in Kiev on Friday to encourage a peaceful resolution of the crisis.

- Ukraine looks West -

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had already warned his US counterpart John Kerry on Tuesday that the travel bans and asset freezes unveiled by the European Union and Washington on Monday were "absolutely unacceptable and will not be left without consequences."

But Russia's tough talk appears to be pushing the new leaders of Ukraine ever further away from the Kremlin.

Ukrainian foreign ministry spokesman Yevgen Perebiynis said Kiev "reserves the right to review" its membership in the Moscow-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) alliance that replaced the Soviet Union and now groups 11 states.

The greatest fear facing Kiev's new leaders and the West is that Putin will push huge forces massed along the Ukrainian border into the Russian-speaking southeastern swathes of the country in a self-professed effort to "protect" compatriots he claims are coming under attack from violent ultra-nationalists.

"We are not speaking about military actions in the eastern regions of Ukraine," Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the BBC.

"But Russia will do whatever is possible... to protect and to extend a hand of help to Russians living in eastern regions of Ukraine."

- First bloodshed -

Putin signed the Crimea treaty -- recognised by no nation besides Russia -- after stressing the move was done "without firing a single shot and with no loss of life."

But the first bloodshed came only hours later when a group of gunmen wearing masks but no military insignia stormed a Ukrainian military centre in the main city of Simferopol.

The Ukrainian defence ministry said one of its soldiers died from a neck wound and another suffered various injuries.

The pro-Russia Crimean police said a member of the local militias had also been killed. A spokeswoman blamed both casualties on shooting by unidentified assailants from a nearby location.

The violence prompted Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk to warn that "the conflict is shifting from a political to a military stage".

The Ukrainian defence ministry then authorised its soldiers in Crimea to open fire in self-defence for the first time.

Ukraine had previously forbidden its troops from shooting -- in some cases forcing them to stand guard at their bases with empty rifles -- to avoid provoking a fully-fledged Russian offensive.


© 2014 AFP

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