Gunfire at Crimea airbase sounds a warning for Ukraine

First shots of Russian incursion into Crimea ring out

Col Vladimir Kukharenko: claimed  Russian soldiers at Belbek airbase in the Crimea had “no insignia on their uniforms”.

Col Vladimir Kukharenko: claimed Russian soldiers at Belbek airbase in the Crimea had “no insignia on their uniforms”.

Wed, Mar 5, 2014, 01:00

The first shots of Russia’s military incursion into Crimea tore through a leaden sky over Belbek airbase yesterday.

They crackled in warning above the heads of about 300 unarmed Ukrainian servicemen, who were marching towards Belbek’s Russian occupiers to demand access to their base and its ageing fleet of MiG-29 fighter jets.

When they were a few hundred metres from the Russians, the soldiers – singing Ukraine’s anthem and waving its flag alongside the scarlet Soviet-era banner of their division – were met by the report of machine-gun fire.

“Shoot, you bitch!” shouted one Ukrainian. “We are in charge here!” They marched on towards the tall blue tail fins of their parked MiGs, still singing, and a Russian soldier tapped out another warning on his Kalashnikov.

“Stop or I’ll shoot you in the legs. I’ll shoot!” he warned, as other Russians converged on the road, their automatic rifles and grenade launchers trained on the column of men.

“America is with us!” one overwrought Ukrainian screamed as they stopped in front of the Russians. His comrades calmed him and pointed to the old flag red flag of their division.

“It’s the Soviet flag,” one said. “Are you really going to shoot?” The guns fell silent and the Ukrainian commander of the base, Yuli Mamchur, requested talks with the Russians’ leader.

“We are two brotherly nations that are about to confront each other,” Mamchur told the Russians blocking his path. “It’s not right.”

As negotiations were arranged, some of the Ukrainians retreated to a field and kicked around a yellow football. Later, Mamchur went into the base to make his request for joint patrols with the Russians. Then his men picked up their ball and marched back to barracks in ramshackle Belbek.

“They are Russian special forces, but they have no insignia on their uniforms,” Ukrainian colonel Vladimir Kukharenko told The Irish Times . “Their leader calls himself Roman. He won’t give his surname, rank or unit.”

Kukharenko said Mamchur stayed at the base to await the arrival of a senior officer from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which is based at nearby Sevastopol. His men had no intention of surrendering, he added.

Russians surrounded
Russian troops are surrounding Ukrainian military bases across Crimea, armoured vehicles rumble along its roads and navy vessels guard the bay of Sevastopol.

The military are supported by volunteer “self-defence” groups of local men and, allegedly, new arrivals from southern Russia, at roadblocks they have built around the peninsula.

They say they are defending Crimea and its ethnic-Russian majority from roaming bands of “neo-Nazi” thugs unleashed on Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine by its new government. No one seems to have seen these gangs, but they have all heard lurid scare stories at third hand.

Outside Belbek garrison yesterday, some local women harangued Ukrainian serviceman for refusing to surrender to Crimea’s pro-Russian authorities.

“The Russians aren’t occupiers here,” insisted Elena Seleznyova. “They are defending us from fascists.”