Wednesday, August 20, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Russian forces storm Ukrainian base

Outside the Belbek air base in Crimea, members of pro-Russian defense units detain a man. Russian forcestook over the base Saturday, one of the last Ukrainian posts in the territory.
Outside the Belbek air base in Crimea, members of pro-Russian defense units detain a man. Russian forcestook over the base Saturday, one of the last Ukrainian posts in the territory. VASILY FEDOSENKO / Reuters
BELBEK, Crimea - With a burst of automatic weapons fire and stun grenades, Russian forces in armored personnel carriers on Saturday broke through the walls of one of the last Ukrainian military outposts in Crimea, then quickly overpowered Ukrainian troops armed only with sticks.

The fall of the Belbek air base, along with the loss of a second Ukrainian air base Saturday near the Crimean town of Novofedorivka, removed one of the last barriers to total Russian control of the Crimean Peninsula.

It came less than a week after Crimeans voted overwhelmingly in a referendum to leave Ukraine and join Russia. In its speed, the base takeover - which had progressed all week - was emblematic of Crimea's swift absorption into the Russian Federation, even as Ukraine's leaders reiterated Saturday that they do not recognize the annexation.

In Belbek, the Ukrainians put up no resistance on the orders of the base commander, Col. Yuli Mamchur, who has become a symbol of Ukrainian spirit for his steely defiance of repeated Russian demands that the tactical air wing surrender and relinquish all weapons.

Most of the 200 or so troops on the base have weapons, but Mamchur was determined to avoid casualties. So when four Russian personnel carriers drove through a concrete wall and rammed down the wrought-iron front gate after an hours-long standoff, Mamchur's men were waiting with sticks that appeared to have been fashioned from broken broom handles, tree branches, railing dowels, table legs, and croquet mallets.

Two ambulances sped from the scene within minutes of the Russian incursion. Mamchur said one of his men had been kicked and beaten by the advancing Russians. It was unclear whether there were other casualties.

Russian infantrymen armed with automatic rifles rushed through the two gaping holes in the wall and shouted for the Ukrainians gathered outside the base headquarters building to move back. The Ukrainians stood their ground and responded with a stream of Russian curse words.

"We have done everything we could," Mamchur told the men and women in his command. "You acted with honor. There is nothing we should be ashamed of." Then the Ukrainians lined up two deep and sang the Ukrainian national anthem.

The storming of the Belbek installation capped a surreal day characterized by spurts of melancholy, boredom, joy, and calculated preparations for a takeover.

At 8:30 a.m., smoke wafted over the base near Sevastopol as soldiers tossed documents into two bonfires at the perimeter. Troops milled around killing time before a confrontation they knew was inevitable. One serviceman sat on a wall picking out a Beethoven melody on a piano app on his phone, "to lighten the mood," he said.

When a group of Russians arrived to talk with Mamchur, he refused to allow them onto the base and instead walked out to meet them on a street corner. He leaned against a faded yellow taxi as the Russians urged him to give up weapons and allow his troops to depart along a planned safe corridor.

Residents of a nearby village gathered on the rise of a hill to watch. Several men shouted anti-gay slurs at the Ukrainian commander. A woman berated him loudly for having an armed security detail. Posters have appeared near the base saying that Mamchur should be executed.

Mamchur said he had no contact with the government in Kiev and was making decisions on his own. Several Ukrainian troops said they feel ignored and abandoned by the military leadership.

After the talks concluded with no agreement, Mamchur returned to the base to officiate at the wedding of the two lieutenants in his command. Both the bride and the groom wore blue jeans and black jackets, and more than 100 troops lined up to fete them with champagne, chocolates, figs, and cookies.

It took seconds for the Russian personnel carriers to slice through the concrete walls, followed by a rush of infantrymen. Gunfire and the percussion boom of stun grenades filled the air.

"Why did you shoot?" one Ukrainian demanded angrily. "We didn't fire a single round."

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

Carol Morello and Will Englund Washington Post
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