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Ukrainian air base seized

March 23, 2014

Russian troops have seized a Ukrainian air base in Crimea amid gunfire. Meanwhile, Germany's foreign minister is in the country for talks a day after Russia completed its annexation of the Black Sea peninsula.

Ukraine Belbek Krim Ukrainische Soldaten Übernahme Militärbasis
Image: Reuters

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Elite Russian troops fired into the air and used stun grenades on Saturday as they stormed the Belbek air base, near the main city of Simferopol. It was the last major facility to be seized by pro-Russian forces and had endured a tense blockade for more than a week.

Russian forces had already seized t he base's airstrip and warplanes at the start of the Crimea crisis. The compound, which was taken Saturday after an armored personnel carrier smashed through the main gate, included barracks, arms depots and a command building.

Ukraine's defense ministry later confirmed its soldier s had left the installation and said a journalist and a Ukrainian soldier had been wounded in the incident.

Earlier on Saturday, a pro-Russian crowd stormed the Novofedroivka base, around 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of Simferopol, Ukraine's defense ministry said. Protesters reportedly raised the Russian flag at the base after it was vacated.

Russian troops also seized the Slavutich, one of the last navy ships in Crimea still flying the Ukrainian flag. On Friday, pro-Kremlin forces took control of Ukraine's only submarine in the region, the Zaporizhya.

Germany: Russia dividing Europe

On a visit to Ukraine on Saturday, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the referendum in Crimea that preceded the peninsula's annexation by Russia, which President Vladimir Putin completed by signing laws on Friday, "is a violation of international law and an attempt to splinter Europe."

After meeting with interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk in Kyiv, Steinmeier pledged additional support for Ukraine's new pro-EU government, saying Germany wants to help "as much as we can."

The German foreign minister also traveled to the eastern city of Donetsk, where around 5,000 rallied to demand closer ties with Russia, to hold talks with local officials. "We heard there is much desire to preserve Ukraine as a single state," he told reporters after the meeting.

Support for Ukraine

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in Kyiv Saturday, the first G7 leader to visit Crimea since the region voted for independence on March 16, to voice his support for "courageous" Ukrainians.

Harper said Putin had "undermined international confidence" by violating a 1994 deal under which Ukraine gave up its Soviet-era nuclear arsenal in exchange for sovereignty guarantees from Russia and several Western states.

"By breaching that guarantee, President Putin has provided a rationale for those elsewhere… to arm themselves to the teeth," he said.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also met with Yatsenyuk in Kyiv Saturday, expressing his optimism for the interim government's future.

"I am confident that with such strong support from the international community that you are receiving, under your leadership as well as your courageous people, you will be able to overcome this difficult time," he said.

dr/jm (AFP, Reuters, AP)