The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

March 8, 2014

Russia reinforces military presence in Crimea

(Continued)

In Simferopol, meanwhile, a public ceremony was held for the swearing-in of the first unit in the pro-Russia "Military Forces of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea." About 30 men armed with AK-47s, and another 20 or so unarmed, turned out. They ranged in age from teenagers to a man who looked to be about 60. They were sworn in at a park in front of an eternal flame to those killed in World War II.

Sergei Aksyonov, the Crimean prime minister, came to the ceremony and was greeted by the soldiers with shouts of "Commander!"

He said their main role, at least until the referendum, would be to "keep the peace." He said he didn't foresee any fighting with the Ukrainian soldiers still at bases in Crimea.

"We are not enemies with those soldiers who pledged loyalty to the Ukrainian state. They are not our enemies," Aksyonov said. He said they could safely leave Crimea if they wanted to.

In the week since Russia seized control of Crimea, Russian troops have been disarming Ukrainian military bases here. Some Ukrainian units, however, have refused to give up. Aksyonov has said pro-Russian forces numbering more than 11,000 now control all access to the region and have blockaded all military bases that haven't yet surrendered.

On Friday evening, pro-Russia soldiers tried to take over another Ukrainian base in Sevastopol, resulting in a tense standoff that lasted for several hours.

Lt. Col. Vitaly Onishchenko, deputy commander of the base, said three dozen men wearing unmarked camouflage uniforms arrived late Friday. While one group climbed over a wall on one side of the base, another crashed a heavy military truck through the gates, Onishchenko said.

He said Saturday that they turned off power, cut telephone lines and demanded that about 100 Ukrainian troops, who barricaded themselves into one of the base buildings, surrender their weapons and swear allegiance to Russia. The invaders left around midnight.

No shots were fired in and no injuries were reported.

Russia has described the troops who wear green uniforms without insignia as local "self-defense forces." But Onishchenko said the troops who tried to overrun his base were clearly Russian.

"These were Russian servicemen specially ordered," he said. "Their watches were set to Moscow time. They spoke with Russian accents and they didn't hide their allegiance to the Russian Federation."

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