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Russians seize Ukrainian air force base in Crimea; shots fired

MOSCOW -- Shots were fired and at least one person was injured Saturday afternoon as Russian troops stormed a Ukrainian air force base near the Crimean port city of Sevastopol. At least six Russian armored vehicles reportedly took part in the attack, the initial part of which could be viewed live via webcam.

The video feed showed a Russian armored personnel carrier breaking down the gates of the base at Belbek as another Russian armored vehicle provided cover with a heavy machine gun. The broadcast was terminated after a Russian soldier in a black mask climbed the lamp post on which the camera was installed and disabled it.

Five more armored vehicles then joined the attack, breaking down parts of a perimeter fence, allowing Russian footsoldiers armed with automatic rifles and machine guns to rush in, Oleg Klimov, a Russian freelance journalist who witnessed the scene, told The Times.

“As they broke inside the base territory a man in civilian clothes went out to them appearing to want to negotiate but they brought him down with a rifle butt and started kicking him with their boots and rifle butts,” Klimov said in a phone interview. “Then several dozen base officers and soldiers, some of them armed with Kalashnikovs, confronted the attackers, and a very tense standoff ensued as both sides were pointing guns at each other and screaming at the top of their voices.”

The Russians shot in the air; the Ukrainians did not fire their weapons, Klimov said.

“Then the Ukrainians were given an order by their commander to put down their guns and surrender, which they did as Russians ran around the base and took key positions of control over it,” Klimov said.

Earlier in the day, Russian troops in a similar fashion stormed a Ukrainian unit that protected a navy airfield at Novofedorovka, Ukraine Defense Ministry spokesman Alexei Mazepa told The Times.

“The Russians used stun and smoke grenades and were also shooting in the air,” Mazepa said in a phone interview. “In one word what we see today in Crimea is an agony of Ukraine troops which never got a concrete order from Kiev what to do in these dire circumstances.”

A battalion of Ukrainian marines, a Ukraine naval vessel in Sevastopol Bay and two other boats in Donuzlav Lake were the last remaining Ukrainian armed forces in the Crimean peninsula still flying a Ukrainian flag after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a treaty officially sealing Crimea's annexation  Friday, Mazepa said.

“The only command I got from my superiors was to try to make it back to Ukraine on my own,” said Mazepa, who is still in Crimea.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered the Russian Black Sea Fleet to help evacuate 61 Ukrainian army paratroopers who expressed a desire to return from Crimea, the Defense Ministry official website said  Saturdey.

Of 18,000 Ukrainian army and navy personnel based on the Crimean peninsula, fewer than 2,000 expressed a desire to continue to serve in Ukraine's army and return to Ukraine, said a statement posted on the Russian Defense Ministry website Saturday.

The Russian flag this week was raised by 147 Ukrainian army and navy units in Crimea, the report said, including eight Ukrainian naval vessels and one submarine.

sergei.loiko@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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