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Pro-Russian forces storm, seize air base in Crimea



Published: Sun, March 23, 2014 @ 12:00 a.m.

Associated Press

BELBEK AIR BASE, Crimea

Ukraine’s armed forces took what may prove to be one of their final stands Saturday in Crimea, as pro-Russian forces stormed and seized control of an air-force base amid a barrage of gunfire and explosions.

A tense blockade of the Belbek air base that has endured for more than a week looked set for an inevitable culmination after the seizure of one Ukrainian-held military facility after another in recent days.

It was the last major Ukrainian military facility in Crimea to fall into the hands of pro-Russian forces. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry hasn’t provided details of how many bases it still controls on the peninsula.

Crimea residents voted last week to secede from Ukraine and join Russia — a process that was formalized with the blessing of President Vladimir Putin. The vote, which took place under conditions akin to martial law under the gaze of apparently Moscow-led militia forces, has been rejected as illegitimate by the international community.

The assault on the Belbek base mirrored events at other Ukrainian-held military facilities on the peninsula in recent days.

In footage provided by the Ukrainian Defense ministry, a Russian-made BTR-80 armored personnel carrier could be seen smashing open a front gate at Belbek, a base across the bay from the port city of Sevastopol.

Armored personnel carriers crashed through walls at two other locations and were followed by armed personnel, who advanced in crouching position as they secured the area. Four BTR-80s were involved in the assault, Ukrainian officials said.

Ukrainian troops offered no resistance. Later, a separate motley group arrived at the scene. The crowd appeared to be made up of professional soldiers, members of a recently formed militia unit and Cossacks.

The cause of the explosions wasn’t immediately clear, although Ukrainian officials said they were stun grenades used to disperse any potential resistance.

Two ambulances arrived and then departed shortly after. Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said one reporter and a Ukrainian soldier were injured in the raid.


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