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Russia uses armored vehicles to seize Crimean base

BELBEK, Crimea – Russian forces pushed Saturday to complete their expulsion of the Ukrainian military from the disputed Crimean Peninsula, smashing through the gates of a base here with armored vehicles, firing weapons into the air and demanding that the cornered Ukrainian soldiers surrender.

By evening, Russian forces were fully in control as negotiations over the terms of withdrawal appeared to be continuing.

The base here, adjacent to the Sevastopol airport, was one of the last Ukrainian strongholds, and the assault Saturday was a larger and more dramatic military operation than at other installations where Ukrainian forces have capitulated steadily in recent days as Russia declared its formal annexation of the region.

The takeover came as Russia appeared to try to assuage international worries that its incursion into Ukraine would not expand beyond Crimea, by agreeing to the deployment of a team of international monitors to places in Ukraine outside the peninsula. The fears of further seizures of territory had risen Friday as Russian troops massed along the border with eastern Ukraine, and the United States had issued a stern warning against further incursions.

The agreement, however, pointedly excluded Crimea, drawing strong condemnation in the West. A Russian statement said that excluding Crimea “reflects the new political-legal realities” because it has “become part of Russia.”

The military operations Saturday seemed to add an exclamation mark to that statement, as Russian forces and loosely organized local militias sought to complete their ousting of Ukrainian military personnel in Crimea. The Kremlin has invited Ukrainian service members to join the Russian military with no change in rank and potentially increased pay, but many have declined.

On Wednesday, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry in Kiev said it had drawn up plans to evacuate its military personnel, effectively announcing a surrender and yielding to the reality of the Russian occupation that began late last month.

A spokesman for the Ukrainian military in Crimea said Russian troops had also taken a base Saturday at Novofyodorovka, northwest of Simferopol, the regional capital. At the Belbek base here, Russian forces issued an ultimatum earlier in the day, warning of an attack if the troops did not relinquish control of the base.

Russian forces have issued similar ultimatums – and subsequently seized control – at other bases across Crimea over the last week, without casualties. At least one person was wounded Saturday at the Belbek base, beaten by Russian special forces, but it was unclear if the man was a soldier or a journalist.

Tension and anticipation had risen throughout the afternoon at the base. Despite the tension, two lieutenants stood side-by-side and tied the knot.

The couple completed their wedding vows Saturday under the gaze of Belbek base commander Col. Yuliy Mamchur, who has been hailed in Ukraine for his refusal to yield to numerically superior pro-Russian forces.

As medic Galina Volosyanchik and communications officer Ivan Benera were being handed a gift and bouquet of flowers, Mamchur said: “You will always remember this, the whole world is here watching.”

As Volosyanchik held her flowers, she wiped away tears. Colleagues then drank champagne and shared toasts.

Hours later, the Russians moved in.

After scattered verbal exchanges between the Ukrainians and Russian soldiers gathered outside the base’s black iron fence, the Russian mobilization began at about 5 p.m. One armored vehicle smashed through the main gate, while a second broke through a cement wall a short distance away.

There were sporadic bursts of gunfire, and several loud bangs from smoke grenades. At least one Russian soldier fired a handgun into the air repeatedly. Meanwhile, on the streets of a residential neighborhood near the base, armed local militiamen, many wearing masks, had gathered in large numbers, apparently to support the siege.

In at least one case, a news photographer reported that the militiamen had stolen his cameras; other journalists reported that the armed men tried to confiscate memory cards and cellphones.

As in other similar operations, the militiamen quickly formed a perimeter to block access to the base, linking arms to form a human wall. Inside the base, the Ukrainian soldiers and some journalists were surrounded; ultimately, the journalists were searched and ejected, and most of the soldiers were sent home to pack their personal belongings.