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Russians reportedly attack two Ukrainian naval units in Crimea

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MOSCOW -- Ukrainian forces at two naval facilities in Crimea reported Wednesday that they were attacked by gunmen linked to Russia in violation of an earlier agreement to give them until Friday to leave the breakaway region.

“So-called pro-Russian self-defense forces of Crimea aided by Russian gunmen in unmarked uniforms stormed and gained control of our navy chief’s headquarters in Sevastopol,” Alexei Mazepa, regional spokesman for the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, said in a phone interview. The headquarters building was under Russian control by midday, he said.

Ukrainian forces on the peninsula have largely been surrounded and barricaded by Russian troops and pro-Russian militia who seized control of Crimea late last month. On Tuesday, following a controversial referendum among Crimeans, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that the Ukrainian region would become part of Russia.

A Russian journalist who witnessed the assault on the headquarters said it was launched by about 200 armed pro-Russian militia in Russian army uniforms and masks and by Russian Cossacks. The attackers broke down the gates of the base and surrounded the main building.

Ukrainian naval officers barricaded themselves in the building and the assault subsided when Vice Adm. Alexander Vitko, commander of Russia’s Crimean-based Black Sea fleet, arrive to negotiate, said journalist Oleg Klimov by telephone from the Crimean city of Sevastopol.

“As soon as Vitko was gone, the storm continued as the Cossacks and militiamen broke down the door and threw at least one stun grenade inside,” he said.

The defenders were overwhelmed without a shot fired, Klimov said.

“When the entire base was in the hands of the attackers, Russian gunmen in unmarked uniforms arrived on the scene in great numbers and took positions everywhere inside the base,” Klimov said. “As Ukrainian officers, looking demoralized, started leaving the base one captain … stopped for a minute, looking around the base as if saying goodbye.” He carried framed photographs of naval vessels he had served on.

A similar scene unfolded miles away at Donuzlav Lake, where armed pro-Russian militia broke down the gate of a Ukrainian naval base with a tractor, according to Mazepa, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman.

“The unit’s armed officers and sailors barricaded themselves inside the command building of the base, threatened to open fire on the attackers and those retreated,” Mazepa said over the phone.

On Tuesday night one Ukrainian officer was killed and at least two were injured as Russian gunmen reportedly opened fire at a Ukrainian army cartographic unit in the center of Simferopol.

Russia is trying to rid the peninsula of Ukrainian servicemen as quickly as possible to gain full control over Crimea, Ukrainian defense expert Dmitry Tymchuk said.

“Our army and navy units in Crimea are the only element of Ukraine's presence in this region the Kremlin has annexed by force,” Tymchuk, the head of the Kiev-based Center for Military and Political research, said in a phone interview. The Ukrainian troops “are in a very desperate situation now as the political and military leadership of Ukraine still refrains from issuing concrete instructions for their conduct in these dire circumstances.”

Ukraine had managed to save at least half of its navy fleet, including its flag ship Hetman Sahaidachny, which relocated to the ports of Odessa and Mariupol. The seven vessels trapped at Donuzlav Lake may soon fall into Russian hands as the waterway’s access to the Black Sea has been blockaded by the Black Sea Fleet. The Russians sank at least three old vessels there early this month to prevent the Ukrainian ships from leaving, Mazepa said.

Rear Adm. Sergei Gayduk, commander of the Ukrainian navy, was temporarily detained by Russian investigators in Sevastopol on suspicion that he ordered his forces “to open fire against peaceful civilians,” Russian ITAR-TASS new agency reported.

[Updated 10:55 a.m. PDT March 19: Ukraine's acting president, Olexandr Turchinov, was later quoted by the UNIAN news agency as saying that Gayduk was still being held and demanding the release of the admiral and other "hostages."]

A Ukraine marine battalion stationed in the Crimean port of Feodosia demanded instructions from Kiev, UNIAN news agency reported. The marines also demanded guarantees that they would be able to continue their military service in Ukraine proper and in the same unit.

“If this is not done, the consequences may be unpredictable,” the battalion commander’s statement said, suggesting their possible defection.

sergei.loiko@latimes.com

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