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22 Mar, 2014 22:46

Crimean self-defense squads enter Belbek airbase

Crimean self-defense squads enter Belbek airbase

Crimean self-defense forces have surrounded Belbek airbase near Sevastopol after Ukrainian troops inside refused to lay arms and leave the base in accordance to the Crimean prime minister’s order.

The self-defense squads are now in control of the airbase while the Ukrainian troops have been given an opportunity to leave, Dmitry Osipenko, a journalist for Sevastopol news website ForPost who was present at the scene, told RT.

The commander of the airbase, Yuliy Mamchur, has been escorted to negotiations with Crimean authorities.

“After they refused [to leave the base] the Sevastopol self-defense troops tried to enter the territory of the base,” while gunfire was heard at the scene. “According to my information nobody was injured, but I’m not sure,” said Osipenko.

Osipenko claimed the gunfire was coming from the side of the Ukrainian troops. However, it is unclear who was shooting. “The self-defense forces hid behind cars and then a car rammed the gate [of the airbase],” he said.

Members of Crimea's self-defense forces and residents outside a military base in the Crimean town of Belbek near Sevastopol March 22, 2014 (Dmitry Osipenko)

He stated that apart from the self-defense squads, Sevastopol Cossaks were present.

The move follows the March 16 all-Crimean referendum which resulted in over 96 percent of voters opting for the autonomous republic to join Russia. Eight-three percent of the Crimeans took part in the vote. The decision was sparked by bloody protests in Kiev that resulted in the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovich and fears that the unrest might spread to Crimea.

Russia finalized the legal process of taking Crimea under its sovereignty on Friday, with President Vladimir Putin signing a law amending the Russian constitution to reflect the transition.

'We are being abandoned'

Though Crimea is no longer part of Ukraine, Kiev authorities have not yet officially ordered Ukrainian troops to leave their bases in Crimea.

Ukrainian military troops stationed at Belbek criticized their leadership for abandoning them in a post on the airbase’s blog.

"We are being abandoned - most sadly by our own government," it reads. "The most dangerous enemy appeared to be our leadership and our government."

“Today I've found an interview with Acting Minister of Defense [Igor] Tenyukh where he says he maintains contact with all troops on the territory of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, that all relevant orders were given and the situation is under control. There were only two orders – ‘remain in place’ and '[you are ] allowed to use weapons.' That’s it!”

Members of Crimea's self-defense forces and residents outside a military base in the Crimean town of Belbek near Sevastopol March 22, 2014 (Dmitry Osipenko)

What is expected [of us] in case of an assault?” the military asked. ”There were no clear answers given to us.”

Meanwhile, most US financial assistance to Ukraine will focus on the formation and maintenance of the new military – the National Guard, said a source from the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, as cited by Itar-Tass.

Kiev is not planning to fund the army or navy which are in a deplorable state,” the source said.

The National Guard, the custodian of the coup-imposed government, is already in formation and will be comprised of 60,000 men and women from former and current Ukrainian troops and volunteers from Maidan self-defense squads. It will be appointed by the parliament upon the recommendation of the acting president.

Members of Crimea's self-defense units take cover behind cars outside a military base in the Crimean town of Belbek near Sevastopol March 22, 2014 (Reuters / Vasily Fedosenko)