Ukrainian troops forced to leave their loved ones behind
Just after sunset yesterday, an old bus, two heavy military lorries and a dozen cars, some flying Ukrainian flags, rolled on to the causeway across the salt marshes on the north-eastern tip of the Crimean peninsula.
On board were 47 men, two women and a child from the Ukrainian marine base in Feodosia – the first of many convoys of Ukrainian servicemen and their families making their way out of what is now Russian Crimea. Behind them they have left wives, children, a city and region many of them have come to think of as home, and their commanding officer – seized by Russian forces in a dawn raid yesterday and still missing.
It wasn't meant to end this way.
Hours earlier, these men had been guarding their base in Feodosia, a resort and port town in eastern Ukraine that was until yesterday the last significant military installation still under Ukrainian control.
The most battle-ready unit on the Crimean peninsula when the Russians invaded, the marine battalion had defiantly held out for three weeks, telling the Russians besieging them that they would leave only in convoy, with their weapons and their vehicles. Until early yesterday, the Ukrainians thought they had a deal. A formal flag lowering ceremony and handover had been planned for midday.
But someone in Moscow apparently decided they could not be allowed even that dignity.
At 4.15am, Russian special forces used helicopters and armoured personnel carriers to storm the base, hurling stun grenades and firing automatic weapons.
Hours after they had been evicted at gunpoint – deprived of their armoured vehicles, heavy equipment, and weapons – and nearly a month since Russian forces first overran Crimea, the government in Kiev finally issued the order to withdraw.
Russian recruiting officers have been working hard outside besieged bases to convince Ukrainian troops to change sides, promising them equal rank and improved salaries.
While many refused, for others with families to support and local roots, the offer was persuasive. Still others say they will quit military service altogether to stay in the peninsula they have come to think of as home.
As a result, officers say only about a third of the 600-strong Feodosia based battalion opted to return to the Ukrainian mainland. (© Daily Telegraph, London)