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'On the brink of disaster'

Russian, Ukrainian soldiers face off

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Darko Vojinovic / The Associated Press
A woman passes by unidentified gunmen as they guard Ukraine�s infantry base in Privolnoye, Ukraine, on Sunday.

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Darko Vojinovic / The Associated Press A woman passes by unidentified gunmen as they guard Ukraine�s infantry base in Privolnoye, Ukraine, on Sunday.

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine -- Armed Russian and Ukrainian soldiers stood face to face Sunday, eyeing each other across a locked gate at a military installation in Crimea, as residents and an alarmed West asked: What are Moscow's intentions in Ukraine?

Ukraine's new prime minister said the bold and provocative Russian troop movements in Crimea in recent days amounted to a "declaration of war to my country." Ukrainian officials sounded a mobilization order Sunday for army reservists to report for duty immediately.

Western officials, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, were unequivocal in their denunciations of Russia's intervention in Ukraine. Kerry warned "the people of Ukraine will not sit still for this. They know how to fight."

He and European foreign affairs leaders promised Sunday there would be a strong response to Russia's decision to "invade" Ukraine, as Kerry put it in an interview on ABC's This Week.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was silent Sunday.

In Kyiv, Ukraine's interim prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, said in an emotional plea at a news conference, "We are on the brink of disaster."

Yatsenyuk, part of a new government that took power after pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was tossed out of office just over a week ago, said armed conflict was a real possibility.

"If President Putin wants to be the president who started a war between two neighbouring and friendly countries, Ukraine and Russia, he has reached that target within a few inches," Yatsenyuk said in English.

Ukrainian leaders worried Russia was looking for any provocation on their part to justify an attack.

By late Sunday, no shots had been fired in Crimea, a region of eastern Ukraine where Russian culture and influence have historically been strong.

But at the narrow land crossing between Crimea and the rest of Ukraine, Russian soldiers are digging trenches, according to a BBC report.

Soldiers thought to belong to Russian units, without insignia or markings, moved unimpeded into positions across the Crimean Peninsula. Over a three-day period, they have surrounded military and civilian installations. Convoys of Russian troop trucks were spotted on highways. A Russian flag flew over the Crimean parliament.

At the Ukrainian military base at Perevalnoe in Crimea, Ukrainian soldiers stood guard while soldiers whom locals described as Russian commandos milled around outside the walls. The Ukrainians refused to surrender their weapons or step aside. A commander of the Ukrainian troops spoke with the men surrounding his base, then went back inside.

Civilians in a pro-Russia crowd outside the base called to the Ukrainian soldiers, "Boys, don't be afraid, we will protect you!" Others urged them to open the gates and let the Russians in. A Russian Orthodox priest arrived and blessed the Russians and Ukrainians.

"Now we feel safe and patriotic that the Russian soldiers are here for us," said a man from a nearby village who said his name was Vladimir.

Asked about the Ukrainian soldiers inside the base, Vladimir said: "They should go home. They're not going to fight. It's over."

The loyalties -- and the command and control -- of the Ukrainian military in Crimea are unknown.

Russian media said Ukrainian troops were not putting up any resistance. Ukraine's new interior minister, Arsen Avakov, denied reports of mass resignations from the Ukrainian army in Crimea. But the new head of the Ukrainian navy, Rear Adm. Denys Berezovsky, appeared in a video Sunday swearing his allegiance to the "people of Crimea," as the new pro-Russia prime minister of Crimea stood at his elbow.

Officials in Kyiv labelled it a defection and said the admiral would be investigated for treason.

They assured citizens the 10 vessels in the navy's fleet in nearby Sevastopol remained loyal to Ukraine and have not surrendered their weapons.

In Simferopol, the Ukrainian border guard reported civilians and Russian soldiers broke down the doors at their base and destroyed work stations and communications equipment but the border guardsmen did not give up their weapons, according to the Kyiv Post.

One of richest men in Ukraine, business mogul Rinat Akhmetov, issued a statement denouncing violence, saying: "Today the economy is a real political power. Our objective is to ensure the safety of people and their families and secure stable operations of companies in the country."

In Dnepropetrovsk, a mostly Russian-speaking city southeast of Kyiv, a rally described by local reporters as the largest in years drew an estimated 10,000 people who shouted "Down with Putin!" A similar rally was held in Odessa, Ukraine's third-largest city.

In Luhansk, meanwhile, the city council said it refused to recognize the authority of the new leaders in Kyiv, according to the news website Kommersant.ua.

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 3, 2014 A3

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