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Tuesday 30 September 2014

Ukraine troops to leave Crimea

Published 24/03/2014 | 08:52

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Ukrainian sailors leave their ship on an inflatable boat, foreground, and on a Russian vessel, background, in the bay of Donuzlav, Crimea (AP)
Russian troops seized a marine base in the port of Feodosia (AP)

Ukraine's fledgling government has ordered troops to retreat from Crimea, ending days of wavering as Western leaders tried to present a unified response to Russia's increasingly firm control of the peninsula.

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Russian forces have been systematically seizing Ukrainian ships and military installations in Crimea, including a naval base near the eastern Crimean port of Feodosia, where two injured servicemen were taken captive on Monday and as many as 80 were detained on-site, Ukrainian officials said.

With the storming of at least three military facilities over the past three days alone - and the decision by some to switch to the Russian side - it was not clear how many Ukrainian troops remained on the peninsula. The former chief of Ukraine's navy, who was charged with treason after he swore allegiance to the Crimean authorities and urged others to defect, was named a deputy chief of Russia's Black Sea Fleet.

Ukraine's acting president, Oleksandr Turchnynov, whose new government has struggled to maintain control and cohesion, said the defence ministry was ordered to withdraw all servicemen in Crimea to Ukraine's mainland.

The situation in Ukraine is set to dominate US president Barack Obama's agenda as he begins a week of international travel in the Netherlands, where he was to attend a nuclear security summit. The event has been overshadowed by hurriedly scheduled talks on Ukraine among the Group of Seven industrialised economies - the US, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan.

"We're united in imposing a cost on Russia for its actions so far," Mr Obama said.

Speaking to leading politicians in the Ukrainian capital Kiev, Mr Turchnynov said Ukrainian troops would be evacuated with their families in response to unspecified threats from what he termed occupying Russian forces.

The interim government in Kiev has been criticised for its indecision over Ukrainian troops in Crimea, where Russian forces have steadily gained control of bases and ships. Over the weekend, Russian troops stormed the Belbek air force base near Sevastopol and detained the commander.

Tired of weeks of tension, uncertainty and Kiev's indecision, some Ukrainian troops were leaving their bases. In the bay of Donuzlav in western Crimea, the crew of the Ukrainian navy ship Konstantin Olshanskiy were packing up and leaving on Monday.

The ship's crew was using a small boat that made several round trips to carry them to the shore.

There were hecklers on the shore when the crew arrived. One man shouted that they were "rats fleeing a ship", while another man blasted the Russian national anthem out of his car.

"We aren't rats, we aren't running," said one sailor, who only gave his first name of Yevgeny. "Why should we have stayed, what would we have accomplished?"

Russia completed its annexation of Crimea last week, after its troops took control over the Ukrainian region following the removal of a Kremlin-friendly government in Kiev.

Moscow says its absorption of Crimea has been rendered legitimate by a referendum held earlier this month in which the bulk of voters in the peninsula approved the move, but the process has come under sustained criticism from the international community.

Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu visited Crimea on Monday to inspect the Black Sea Fleet, which has been stationed in Crimea under an agreement with Ukraine that allowed Moscow to have up to 25,000 troops in the peninsula. The Russian officials have remained coy about their precise number.

Mr Shoigu met with Ukrainian servicemen, explaining the benefits and privileges they will have if they join the Russian military.

He named the former head of Ukraine's navy, Denis Berezovsky, as deputy commander of the Black Sea Fleet. Mr Berezovsky was appointed commander of Ukraine's navy on March 1, only to surrender the country's base in the port of Sevastopol to pro-Russian forces a day later. Authorities in Kiev have charged him with treason.

Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev chaired a meeting on providing economic aid to Crimea, promising that Crimeans will continue receiving pensions and subsidies even after the region switches to the Russian ruble.

The West has levelled a raft of sanctions against Russia for its moves in Crimea that have been hailed by some, but criticised as not going far enough by others.

On Monday, Russia announced it has slapped an entry ban on 13 Canadian politicians and officials in retaliation for the sanctions.

Russia's foreign ministry said in Monday's statement that the move is a response to the "unacceptable action by the Canadian side that has inflicted serious damage to bilateral relations".

The government of Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper has acted in unison with the US administration to introduce sanctions targeting members of Russian president Vladimir Putin's entourage.

The Russian list includes Mr Harper's aides Christine Hogan and Wayne Wouters; the House of Commons speaker Andrew Scheer; Peter Van Loan, the government leader in the house; Senator Raynell Andreychuk; and other politicians.

Irwin Cotler, a parliament member of the opposition Liberal Party who was also on the list, tweeted that he sees the Russian sanctions "as a badge of honour".

The Russian foreign ministry said that Russia remains open to a "constructive" co-operation with Canada, but added that "we don't need such co-operation more than Ottawa does".

In Moscow, some restaurants are mocking the sanctions the US imposed on Russia over its annexation of Crimea by posting signs saying that they have banned Mr Obama from their premises.

Press Association

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