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Crimean Officials Claim to Secure Peninsula

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — The prime minister of Crimea, the autonomous Ukrainian republic seized by Russian military forces, said on Tuesday that a majority of Ukrainian military units on the peninsula had surrendered and pledged allegiance to his pro-Russian government, and that local officials were working to speed up a referendum on independence.

Speaking at a news conference on Tuesday morning, Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov said that regional officials were in control of the security situation, even as armed standoffs continued between Russian forces and Ukrainian troops at several military installations, including a base near the airport of Belbek near Sevastopol.

“There is no safety threat to human life in Crimea,” Mr. Aksyonov said.

It was not possible to independently verify Mr. Aksynonov’s claims, and even he did not assert that all military units were now aligned with his pro-Russian administration. He did indicate, however, that he believed enough forces were loyal to him to eliminate the threat of armed insurrection within Crimea.

He said that a referendum on independence from Ukraine scheduled for March 30 would likely be held sooner, but he offered no details. He said that he had not been in contact with Viktor F. Yanukovych, the ousted president of Ukraine who fled to Russia but has said he plans to return.

Mr. Aksyonov said that Crimean armed forces were now in a position to ensure the security of the peninsula on their own but that military officials were working with commanders of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which is based in Sevastopol under a long-term lease.

“We are coordinating our activists with the Black Sea Fleet,” he said. “But as of today we are in a position to ensure our own security,”

In recent days, soldiers wearing uniforms with no identifying insignia have taken up positions around military bases and other security installations across the peninsula, including outposts and headquarters of the federal border police and some government buildings. They are assisted by self-defense militia groups in plain clothes wearing armbands.

On Tuesday morning, there were plainclothes security guards controlling access to the regional administration building, as well as a group gathered near the regional Parliament in the center of the city, including Cossacks in ethnic uniforms and some older men in green camouflage, along with volunteers cooking food.

Unofficial vehicle checkpoints have also been established throughout the Crimean peninsula, often with the red, blue and white Russian flag flying over the barricades, though the purpose of the checkpoints has not been clear. The people operating them say they are providing security.

At the base near the Belbek airport, several hundred Ukrainian and Russian forces were in a standoff that began overnight. A column of roughly 200 unarmed Ukrainian troops approached the Russian positions on the edge of the airfield singing.

As they neared a Russian Humvee and three Russian soldiers blocking the road, Russian troops took up firing positions on one side of them, and as the column got nearer, a shot was fired in the air above them.

The Ukrainians flinched but then picked up the pace and sang louder. At the second and third shots, they began to run toward the Russian post; one man yelled “We are the masters here!”

The Ukrainian commander called a halt three feet from the Russians and a negotiation ensued. After about 30 minutes, a dozen Ukrainian soldiers were permitted to march through the barrier to take up their usual guard duties.

At a port in Sevastopol’s North Bay, two Ukrainian naval vessels, the Slavutych and the Ternipol, were being blockaded by Russian ships.

Under the terms of Russia’s lease for the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet, the location and movement of military personnel and equipment is restricted to designated areas. In recent days, however, troop carriers, Humvees and other military equipment with license plates designating them as part of the Black Sea Fleet have appeared throughout the peninsula.

Since Russian soldiers began deploying late last week, beginning at the two main airports, local officials have sought to convey a sense of threat against Crimea from the provisional government in Kiev. They have denounced the toppling of Mr. Yanukovych as a coup and expressed fears of “fascist” right-wing groups that support the uprising in Kiev.

The anti-Yanukovych protests were supported by a number of nationalist groups popular in western Ukraine, including the Svoboda Party, which controls about three dozen seats in the Parliament, and other, more militant right-wing groups known for anti-Russian rhetoric.

Mr. Aksyonov appealed to President Vladimir V. Putin for help in assuring the security of Crimea and Mr. Putin promptly received authorization from the Russian Parliament to use military force.

Crimea, which has enjoyed a large degree of autonomy since shortly after Ukraine gained its independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union, is heavily pro-Russia, and feels close cultural ties to Russia. The majority of people in the peninsula identify themselves as ethnically Russian, with ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars the largest minority groups.

Mr. Aksyonov, at his news conference, said the threat from the new government and its supporters in Kiev was real. “Only the blind do not see that we were threatened during the three months of conflict in Maidan,” he said, referring to Independence Square, the main protest site in Kiev. “Russians were regularly threatened with physical harm.”

Source: The New York Times

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