22 Mar 2014

Gunshots heard at Crimea’s airbase Belbek

Explosions and gunshots are heard as a Russian forces storm the Belbek airbase in Crimea – one of the last military facilities still under Ukrainian control.

Russian troops had surrounded the Ukrainian airbase and issued an ultimatum to forces inside to surrender, the deputy commander of the base in Belbek, near Sevastopol said.

The base, above which the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag was flying, was one of the few military facilities on Crimea still controlled by Ukraine after the annexation of the peninsula by Russian forces.

The commander of Belbek airbase in Crimea later said he would be taken away by Russian forces for talks, after they entered the base with armored vehicles and automatic rifles. One Ukrainian was injured in the takeover of the base.

The Russian takeover of the Black Sea peninsula up until now has been largely bloodless, though one Ukrainian serviceman was killed and two others wounded in a shooting in Simferopol earlier this week.

Ukraine’s defence ministry said on Friday Crimea’s bases were still formally under Ukrainian control, but most are now occupied by Russian troops and fly Russia’s tricolour flag.

Crimea’s annexation

Russian President Vladimir Putin completed his annexation of Crimea on Friday, signing a law making the peninsula part of Russia.

Meanwhile, Ukraine moved closer to Europe, signing a political association agreement with the EU at a summit.

While weighing their choices, Ukrainian troops burned documents and toasted with champagne two lieutenants who were married on what might be the base’s last day in Ukrainian hands.

Russia welcomed Crimea with deep-booming fireworks that celebrated the territorial expansion of Russia at Ukraine’s expense. Ukraine’s leaders reiterated Saturday that they do not recognize the annexation.

The standoff at the base came as Russia said it would not allow access to Crimea for international monitors who are being dispatched to Ukraine.

The monitors will be deployed as part of an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe mission after Russia dropped its opposition.

Above: Russian forces storm the Belbek airbase in Crimea and break a CCTV overhead camera

An initial force could be dispatched as soon as Saturday evening, and up to 400 monitors will ultimately deploy across the country, including in Ukraine’s volatile south and east.

Clashes in those areas in recent weeks between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian demonstrators have turned deadly.

Polish Foreign Minister Radislaw Sikorski said in an interview published Saturday in the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza that he believed Russia was actively trying to undermine Ukrainian authority in eastern Ukraine, a charge Moscow has denied.

A treaty of accession

Mr Putin, defiant in the face of growing western pressure, signed a treaty of accession moments after it was ratified by the upper house of parliament.

The deal gives the Crimean Peninsula to Russia, but it has pushed a diminished Ukraine further toward the west.

In Brussels, Ukraine’s leaders signed an agreement committing the country to closer ties with the European Union and said they had been promised more than $1bn in additional economic aid. Russia, meanwhile, has become the target of expanded sanctions due to the Crimea situation.