Ukraine crisis: Fears grow for the missing Colonel Yuli Mamchur who stood up to the Russian invaders

Family and politicians warn symbol of Ukrainian defiance is in danger

Belbek

What has happened to Colonel Yuli Mamchur remains unclear. There were reports that he had been freed, but his wife and his colleagues say that he hasn’t contacted them. His mobile is switched off.

Larisa, his wife, has been filled with trepidation: the brake cables in the family car, a Renault Mégane, had been cut; there had been death-threats; posters had been put up in Russian nationalist Sevastopol demanding his execution for treachery.

"Of course I am worried; I can't get in touch with him. They won't say where he is," she said yesterday morning.

The last sighting of the colonel was as he was being driven away on Saturday evening from his base at Belbek, for a meeting with senior officers of the Russian forces which had stormed the air base. Would he be able to come back safely, he was asked. "I don't know, we'll see," was the response.

 

Col Mamchur and his troops at the military airport had become a symbol of defiance against overwhelming odds in the last tempestuous weeks in Crimea. The regiment, not battle-hardened combatants but pilots and ground support for aviation, had dared to say "No" to the military might of Moscow - the last men standing, as other bases succumbed to threats and intimidation - until the Russians came crashing through the walls on Saturday.

It is an indication of the fame that the fighter pilot has had thrust upon him that senior politicians in Ukraine have been vocal in demanding that he is freed, and asking for international help. The acting President, Oleksandr Turchynov denounced the "abduction"; Vitali Klitschko, who is expected to run for the post in forthcoming elections, put out a series of statements saying that the colonel was almost certainly being held in the detention facilities of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol.

To those in Crimea who have opposed the embrace by the separatist government of rule by the Kremlin, Col Mamchur is a hero. Social media sites have been full of anxious questions and comments about his well-being; speculation is growing that he may be taken out of the country for his obstinacy in holding out, and doing so with an invitation to the international media to keep a record of what had been going on.

One of Col Mamchur's officers, Major Vladislav Korgic, a fellow fighter pilot, had hoped that the period of incarceration would be relatively short, as had been the case with others in the Ukrainian military, such as the head of the country's Black Sea Fleet, Admiral Serhiy Hayduk. "One, two days then we hope to see the commander out," he said on Sunday.

"There is no reason to keep him for long; he is not a terrorist, he did not carry out any aggression against the Russians. He did his duty as long as possible, and after that the base changed hands.

"But there is a lot of bitterness out there, so even after he comes out there is a need to be very careful. What happened with his car is very worrying."

Col Mamchur is not the only one in the Belbek garrison to have provoked vitriolic animosity, whipped up by the newly created Samoobrona ("Self Defence Force") of the Crimean government.

Some of the apartments of Ukrainian military personnel, outside the perimeter wall, were targeted by a mob as the Russians were taking over the base. Their partners have faced routine abuse in the local community, their children bullied at school.

"While we were inside waiting for the attack [on Saturday], I could hear some of the Samoobrona outside shouting out my name, threatening me.

"Of course, they didn't come in to carry out the threats, they let the Russians do that," said Major Korgic. "So we have all got problems. My wife and I were both born in Crimea, our families are here. What would we do in another part of Ukraine? But, at the moment, it is the colonel who is under arrest, so he is the one we should be focusing on. We all respect him, he is our commander."

It would have been difficult not to be impressed with Colonel Yuli, as he became known. I had met him on the first day, almost three weeks ago, that the Russians had threatened to carry out an assault on the base unless he surrendered. He had resisted them then and continued to do so.

We had watched as he led his men, unarmed, singing the national anthem, to a confrontation. He demanded that the Russians hand back sections of the airport that had been seized, and successfully negotiated for some of his technicians to be allowed to return to the facilities to carry out essential maintenance work.

During the gruelling days of being under siege, Colonel Mamchur, and other senior Ukrainian officers had received no support from the Ukrainian government in Kiev. A telling example of this came during the standoff on the hill; his mobile rang, it was the Ministry of Defence in Kiev. What were the instructions? We eagerly asked. "Nothing, they asked me to use my own judgement. That has been the case ever since this started."

Before leading his men to confront the Russians that day, Colonel Mamchur had pointed out that the presence of the garrison families outside the gate may have helped prevent a Russian attack. "We did not join the army to be protected by our families, by civilians. We should be the ones protecting them. This morning we will march up there and show them that we are soldiers. We will not let down our families, we will not let down Ukraine."

There were many in Belbek who felt let down by the Ukraine government. Larisa Mamchur was one of them. The day the base was overrun, she spoke of the anger felt by the troops and their families. "We have been abandoned by the new government in Kiev. All these new ministers have been full of big words, but they simply abandoned us to all the dangers."

The Belbek base on Sunday was a scene of calm and peace after the violence of the day before. A group of Russian soldiers sat in the sunshine, on the football field beside the hole punched through the wall by their APCs.

"It's all over, we have peace now," said one, who had been tasked with taking memory cards from cameras as the media were herded out.

"Of course, I knew some photos would get out; you guys are good at hiding things like that."

There were a lot of Colonel Yuli; what did he think of him? "We have nothing against him. He kept us waiting for a long time, but he would say he was doing his duty," the sergeant shrugged.

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