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
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
  • 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: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own