Crimea military town splits as Russia moves in

21st March 2014, Comments 0 comments

Surly and dejected, many Ukrainian soldiers at Perevalne base in Crimea deserted their posts Friday, crossing groups of buoyant Russian soldiers moving in -- but 200 were said to be resisting.

Overwhelmed by superior force and on the day Russia formally claimed the Black Sea peninsula as its territory, the biggest base still holding out against a creeping month-long invasion was slowly giving up.

"Don't worry mum, I'm picking up my things and then I'm coming home," one soldier in a camouflage uniform was heard saying on the phone as Russian troops raised their flag at the main entrance to the base.

In another part of the sprawling facility, dozens of young soldiers were seen moving in with crates and sleeping mats as the Ukrainians brought out their own cases.

One Ukrainian soldier said about 20 percent of the estimated 1,000 troops of the base were staying at their posts, 40 percent had pledged allegiance to the new pro-Moscow government and 40 percent had returned to Ukraine's mainland.

"I'm one of the ones staying. I swore an oath," said the young soldier, who declined to be named, as he embraced his girlfriend and young daughter who came to visit him.

The situation at Perevalne illustrated the confusion at many bases in Crimea, where even Ukrainian soldiers under siege move around freely and there are often local agreements between Russian and Ukrainian troops.

One middle-aged woman at a bus stop surrounded by housing blocks in the dilapidated town next to the base said her son was also still holding out.

"I'm for a free and united Ukraine!" said the woman, who also preferred to remain anonymous, as around 100 Russian troops were seen patrolling the area.

- 'One big Soviet country' -

A town with a population of 2,300 people in the bare hills south of the Crimean capital Simferopol, the community was divided.

"Around 500 people have registered" for Russian passports, said Galina Ivanovna, an official at the bustling local community centre, which arranges everything from children's dancing classes to singing lessons to medical care for the elderly.

"There are people among the military who are leaving but everything is calm and free, nobody is putting pressure on anyone, nobody is forcing anyone," she said.

The director of the centre, Svetlana Kolisetskaya, said she was overjoyed by Crimea's inclusion in Russia and said that the "whole town" wanted passports.

"We're back in our historic homeland! We were all born in the Soviet Union and now we all want to live in one big Soviet country -- Russia," she said.

Andrei Rybin, a retired colonel tending to his vegetable patch under a warm spring sun, said he signed up for a Russian passport as soon as he could.

"We want Russia to defend us from the lawlessness in Ukraine," he said.

Rybin said he had been told his military pension of around 2,000 hryvnias (138 euros, $190) a month would nearly triple under Russian rule.

But he said he pitied his former comrades at the base and said they should not be prosecuted for desertion in Ukraine.

"I'm sure a lot of the soldiers love Ukraine. It's our native country! But not with that government that is in place now.

"They're not traitors. They just didn't know what to do," he said. "I think they were humiliated by their so-called government. I feel sorry for them."

© 2014 AFP

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