Ukraine forces attacked by pro-Russia gunmen; navy facilities seized
By SERGEI L. LOIKO | Los Angeles Times | Published: March 20, 2014
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 promise to give them until Friday to leave the breakaway region.
Later in the day, a Ukrainian official said that his government was making plans for the possible evacuation of its military personnel from the peninsula.
Ukrainian forces in Crimea have largely been surrounded and barricaded by Russian troops and pro-Russia militia who seized control of the region late last month. On Tuesday, after a controversial referendum in Crimea calling for annexation, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that the Ukrainian region would become part of his nation.
A regional spokesman for the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said Wednesday that the “so-called pro-Russia self-defense forces of Crimea aided by Russian gunmen in unmarked uniforms stormed and gained control of our navy chief’s headquarters in Sevastopol.”
The headquarters building was under Russian control by midday, spokesman Alexei Mazepa said in a phone interview.
A Russian journalist who witnessed the assault said it was launched by about 200 armed pro-Russia militia fighters 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 attack subsided when Vice Adm. Alexander Vitko, commander of Russia’s Crimea-based Black Sea fleet, arrived to negotiate, journalist Oleg Klimov said by telephone from Sevastopol.
“As soon as Vitko was gone, the storming 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-Russia militia fighters broke down the gate of a Ukrainian naval base with a tractor, said 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.
Ukraine has managed to withdraw at least half of its navy fleet from Crimea, including the flagship Hetman Sahaidachny, but seven vessels trapped on Donuzlav Lake may soon fall into Russian hands. The Russians sank at least three old vessels at the waterway’s access to the Black Sea early this month to prevent the ships from leaving.
The commander of Ukraine’s navy, Rear Adm. Sergei Gayduk, was detained by Russian investigators in Sevastopol on suspicion of ordering his forces “to open fire against peaceful civilians,” Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency reported. Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, demanded the release of the admiral and other “hostages,” the UNIAN news agency reported.
Though the blockading of Ukrainian forces has largely been carried out without casualties, on Tuesday night one Ukrainian officer was killed and at least two were injured when Russian gunmen reportedly opened fire at a Ukrainian army cartography unit in the center of Simferopol, the Crimean regional capital.
Andriy Parubiy, head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, announced in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, that his government was starting to draw up plans for the possible evacuation of as many as 25,000 military personnel and their families from Crimea.
He also said Ukraine plans to pull out of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Moscow-led coalition of former Soviet republics, and will start requiring Russians traveling to Ukraine to apply for visas.
He appealed to the United Nations to proclaim Crimea a demilitarized zone from which both Russia and Ukraine should withdraw troops and said Ukraine would seek to hold military exercises with “our allies,” an apparent appeal for help from Western nations.
A Ukrainian defense analyst said Russia is trying to rid the peninsula of Ukrainian military personnel as quickly as possible and probably would come to some arrangement with Kiev to allow their withdrawal.
“I think at some point soon Russia may agree to make a corridor for Ukrainian troops in Crimea to leave their units with unit flags and weapons they can carry with them as a compromise decision,” said Dmitry Tymchuk, the head of the Center of Military and Political Research.