Russian troops seize Crimea airbase as Moscow consolidates control
BELBEK AIRBASE, Crimea - Russian troops used armored vehicles, automatic gunfire and stun grenades on Saturday to seize a Ukrainian airbase in Crimea a day after President Vladimir Putin signed laws completing Russia's annexation of the Black Sea peninsula.
Ukrainian forces also abandoned a naval base after attacks by pro-Russian protesters, and had to surrender two flagship vessels to Russian forces.
The facilities at Belbek and Novofedorovka had been among the last still under Ukrainian control after Moscow's armed takeover and subsequent annexation of Crimea, which has a majority ethnic Russian population and harbors one of Russia's biggest naval bases at Sevastopol.
Russia's seizure of the peninsula after the ousting of Ukraine's pro-Russian president by mass protests has triggered the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War. The United States and the European Union have targeted some of Russian President Vladimir Putin's closest long-time political and business allies with personal sanctions.
At the Belbek airbase, a Reuters reporter said armored vehicles had smashed through the walls of a compound and that he had heard bursts of gunfire and grenades, making the takeover one of the more dramatic of Russia's largely bloodless occupation of Crimea.
Russian forces had already seized Belbek's airstrip and warplanes at the start of the crisis. The compound seized on Saturday contained barracks, arms depots and a command building.
Colonel Yuliy Mamchur, the base commander, said a Ukrainian serviceman had been injured and that he himself he was being taken away by the Russians for talks at an unspecified location. He said the Ukrainians were placing their weapons in storage in the base.
NAVAL ASSETS SURRENDERED
Ukraine's naval base at Novofedorovka, near Sevastopol, was vacated after unarmed pro-Russian protesters attempted to force their way in, Ukrainian military spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov said in a Facebook post.
Russian troops also seized the flagship of the Ukrainian fleet, the Slavutich, which had been prevented from leaving port by Russian tug boats, he said, adding that Ukraine's only submarine, the Zaporizhya, had been taken by Russian forces on Friday.
There have been few casualties since Russian forces started seizing control of military facilities in Crimea, though one Ukrainian serviceman was killed and two others were wounded in a shooting in Simferopol earlier this week.
Obama's national security adviser said on Friday that the world was reassessing its relationship with Russia, and that Washington was skeptical of Russian assurances that troop movements on Ukraine's border were merely exercises.
During a visit on Saturday to Kiev and the eastern city of Donetsk, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier praised the interim prime minister, Arseny Yatseniuk, for statements aimed at reassuring the Russian-speaking majority in eastern Ukraine.
Later, after meeting business leaders in the east, Steinmeier said he believed they backed Ukrainian unity and would oppose any attempts to split the region off.
On Friday, Yatseniuk signed a landmark association agreement with the EU, committing Ukraine to closer political and economic cooperation with the 28-nation bloc.
"We have to make sure that Ukraine, economically, does not fall over," she said in a speech. "My biggest fear right now is the state of economy and the need for us all to offer the support that they need."
The Obama administration has asked Congress to approve a $1 billion loan guarantee package for Ukrainewhile the EU has said it is willing to provide $15 billion in loans and grants over several years. The EU aid is contingent on widespread reforms in Ukraine, and the signing of a deal between Kiev and the International Monetary Fund.
Disagreement flared on Saturday over a six-month monitoring mission to Ukraine by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The mission will be deployed in nine places outside Kiev, but there is no specific mention of Crimea in its mandate.