Ukraine crisis: Gunfire and explosions as Crimean base is stormed by Russian troops

Kim Sengupta reports from amid the gunfire and explosions during the seizure of Belbek military airport

Belbek, Crimea

Russian armour smashed into the base of Ukrainian troops on Saturday in the first serious military action between the two countries in the confrontation over Crimea.

Machine guns and stun grenades were used in the assault by Russian soldiers as they ended the siege of Belbek military airport in a brutal show of power. The commander of the base, Colonel Yuli Manchur, who had led his men in defying repeated demands for surrender, was arrested and taken away.

I saw the attack, which came at 4.48pm when three armoured personnel carriers (APCs) punched a hole through the perimeter wall of the base, followed by soldiers in balaclavas streaming in.

There were bursts of automatic fire and loud explosions as the troops surged through. The Ukrainians had locked away their weapons and stood unarmed as the Russians, among them Spetznaz special forces in black, began to surround them.

A little later, the main gate of the base had also been punctured by APCs, cutting off any means for those inside to get away. There were several casualties among the Ukrainians, at least one believed to have been hit by a Russian vehicle.

The Ukrainians lined up. They faced Russian troops eight feet away, with ballistic shields and guns aimed at them. Just beyond, an APC pointed its barrel at the defenders. The two sides shouted at each other with insults soon flying.

Surrender: Armed troops storm the Belbek base yesterday Surrender: Armed troops storm the Belbek base yesterday One Russian officer, apparently trying to calm the situation, shouted: “It’s OK, no more shooting, you’re safe.” The ripostes ran: “You are making us safe by attacking us?! We are here without guns, why are you hiding behind guns and your masks?”

While the Russian troops carried out their assault, gangs of the “Self Defence Force”, the paramilitary raised by the separatist Crimean government, had gathered outside. The Ukrainian soldiers began to get telephone calls from their families saying that their apartments, just outside the perimeter wire, were being broken into. One soldier, Corporal Aleksei Timorenko, turned to me and said: “See how brave they are! They let the Russians do their fighting for them, and rob women and children.”

Ukrainian troops await the Russians Ukrainian troops await the Russians As more and more Russians came in, Col Manchur called his men to attention and led them in singing the national anthem. The Russians, in combat stations, watched in silence as the verses were roared out, followed by full-throated cries of “Glory to Ukraine, Glory to our Heroes”. Col Manchur then told his men: “You have done all that honour demands. You should be proud of yourselves, I am proud of you.” He had, he said, been summoned to a meeting with senior officers and he would, if he could, come back and tell them what had been agreed.

The stance of the Belbek commander over the three weeks in which he had resisted demands to surrender, had made him a hate figure among Russian nationalist separatists. His wife, Larissa, had described earlier in the day how she had seen posters in Sevastopol demanding that her husband be executed for his supposed treachery.

Asked whether he would be safe, Col Manchur responded: “I don’t know, we will see.”

Afterwards, the Russian troops took the media out through the hole created by their armour; photographers and camera operators had memory cards taken away from them, although some managed to smuggle them out. One Russian soldier, his face covered by a bandana, said in broken English: “I am sorry, but I am doing my job, you are doing yours. We are soldiers, it’s the politicians. Ukraine, Russia ... friends.”

A couple are led away by pro-Russian Self Defence Forces A couple are led away by pro-Russian Self Defence Forces As we left, with the light fading, the Ukrainian troops were once again lined up, this time at the instructions of the Russians. Every journalist leaving shook the colonel’s hand, a few had seen his obstinate refusal to give up against overwhelming odds.

Major Vladislav Korgic, a Ukrainian fighter pilot, spoke of the anxiety the men felt for their families. He had spoken to me before about how his seven-year-old daughter would have to be moved from the local school because of his presence in the base, and how his wife had faced abuse from Russian nationalists.

“Of course, we are very, very concerned. I have just spoken to my wife, she is frightened for me,” he said. “I am just thinking about her and my daughter. This is a very, very bad situation for everyone, I don’t know how it’s going to end.”

A member of the Pro-Russian Self Defence Forces raises the Russian flag as the base is stormed A member of the Pro-Russian Self Defence Forces raises the Russian flag as the base is stormed A video camera had been installed at the main gate of the base, accessible on the internet. Members of the Self Defence Force tried to shoot it down, before wrenching it off to loud cheers of “Russia, Russia!”. Any outside scrutiny of what was going to happen to the base in the falling darkness was gone.

The scenes were in stark contrast to those earlier in the day when, under a sky of azure blue, with apple blossom drifting in the air, two young officers, lieutenants Galina Vladimirova Volosyanick and Ivan Ivanovich Benera, got married. Local champagne and lemonade, figs and nuts, chocolates and cakes, had been laid out on a long trestle table covered with a bright golden plastic cover. Toasts were drunk; troops clapped and whistled as the bride and groom kissed each other.

Col Manchur, as the commanding officer, had presided over the ceremony. He wished them happiness and strength in the uncertain times that lay ahead.

READ MORE:
Ukraine crisis: Trapped forces are left with an impossible dilemma in Crimea as Russian endgame approaches
PM: RUSSIAN OLIGARCHS WITH UK LINKS COULD FACE SANCTIONS
Q&A: THE EFFECTS OF SANCTIONS
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future