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
Property
pets
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe C-Word, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Sport
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk