MASKED Russian-speaking soldiers have taken control of the Ukrainian naval headquarters in Crimea after it was stormed by militiamen.
Pro-Moscow Crimean authorities also detained the Ukrainian navy commander and reportedly blocked the defence minister and another official from travelling to the peninsula in a bid to defuse tensions.
Russian forces also seized another Ukrainian naval base, a transport facility, in Bakhchisaray, about 19 miles south-west of the regional capital, Simferopol, late yesterday
Naval officer Major Eduard Kusnarenko said: “Russian troops came and asked us to leave the base, which we did.
“We will try again tomorrow to return to our posts.”
Ukraine’s military – which is heavily outnumbered in Crimea – has come under increased pressure since the region was formally incorporated into Russia on Tuesday.
The several hundred militiamen who captured the base in Sevastopol met no resistance.
The port city is also the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, and tens of thousands of Russian-led troops now patrol Crimea.
The seizure of the naval HQ came a day after a confrontation between Ukrainian soldiers and pro-Russian militia in Crimea left two dead, one from each side.
The Russian-speaking troops, who arrived on the base after the storming, wore helmets, flak jackets and uniforms with no identifying insignia. By yesterday afternoon, they were in full control of the naval headquarters. It was not clear how many, if any, Ukrainian servicemen remained on the base.
Ukraine’s defence ministry said no-one was injured in the raid, which it said was led by pro-Russian militia and Cossacks. It said rear admiral Sergei Haiduk was detained.
Ukraine’s defence minister and deputy prime minister had planned to travel to Crimea yesterday in a bid to avert an escalation in hostilities but turned back after the raid. At the Ukrainian navy HQ, a press photographer saw the militiamen take down the gate and make their way on to the base. They then raised the Russian flag in the nearby square. Ukrainian servicemen were packed up and left after the raid. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is en route to Moscow and Kiev, where he will hold talks with Russian and Ukrainian leaders, seeking a peaceful resolution of the Crimea crisis today.
US vice-president Joe Biden, meanwhile, reassured the leaders of Lithuania and Latvia that the United States would defend any Nato members against aggression and warned that Russia was on a “dark path” to isolation over its actions. He was in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, to reassure Baltic allies worried about Russian aggression.
Lithuania, along with Estonia and Latvia, are former Soviet republics which are now Nato members. “We stand resolutely with our Baltic allies in support of the Ukrainian people and against Russian aggression,” Mr Biden told reporters.
On Tuesday, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a treaty to incorporate Crimea into Russia following a referendum on Sunday in which residents overwhelmingly backed the move. Jubilant crowds in Moscow and other cities across Russia hailed the annexation while the new government in Kiev called Mr Putin a threat to the “civilised world and international security,” and the US and the European Union threatened sanctions against Moscow.
On Monday, Washington and Brussels targeted Russian and Crimean officials with visa bans and asset freezes.
Although Moscow has insisted it has not deployed its own troops in Crimea, thousands of troops under apparent Russian command took over Crimea two weeks before Sunday’s hastily called referendum.
Mr Putin insisted Russia’s military presence in Crimea was limited to 25,000 troops permitted by treaty at its Black Sea fleet base.
Kiev claims that Russia has steadily deployed further forces.