Ukrainian Soldiers Trapped In Crimea Standoff
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
The deployment of Russian troops into Crimea has left an unknown number of Ukrainian servicemen trapped inside their bases. The pro-Russian Crimean prime minister wants them to swear loyalty to his command, but many soldiers are refusing.
NPR's Peter Kenyon visited one base in the hills east of the Crimean capital. He has this report.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: In Simferopol, Crimean's new Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov told reporters that the military situation is under control.
PRIME MINISTER SERGEI ASKSYONOV: (Through Translator) It's not a question of surrendering. Negotiations are underway with military units that are blocked in Crimea by the self-defense units. No one is storming them, but in certain units, commanders are agitating against fulfilling my orders as commander-in-chief. They will face criminal charges. The time for joking around is over.
KENYON: At the entrance to the military base, there are Crimean self-defense forces marking one perimeter and then behind them there are Russian soldiers guarding the entrance gate. Inside are Ukrainian forces who have refused to surrender, who say they're still loyal to Kiev. And on this day, at least, there are small crowds, mostly women. At first, it seemed they must have relatives inside, but they say no. They just came here to support the soldiers.
ALIYA OKHMUSH: (Through translator) I'm here today because this situation worries me a lot. This situation is illegal. Our soldiers are great guys. I feel sorry for them. Last night, I was just crying all night. I wanted to come here and support them, but they won't let us in.
KENYON: Fifty-five-year-old Aliya Okhmush is part of a very large and very mixed family - Russians, Crimeans, Tatars, Ukrainians, even a Korean. She says this crisis is threatening to tear families apart. She was at the hairdresser's a few hours earlier, and the owner, a Russian married to a Tatar, was being asked why she hadn't divorced her husband yet. Okhmush says she hopes the Ukrainian soldiers keep standing up for their country, no matter how sorry a state it may be in at the moment.
OKHMUSH: (Through translator) To our soldiers, I would like to say you're great boys. Keep it up. To the Russian soldiers, I know they have to obey orders or face a court martial, but I think they don't want to be in this situation. I'm sure of that.
KENYON: The Russian soldiers don't care if reporters approach the occasional Ukrainian soldier who appears at the fence, but the Crimean self-defense irregulars block the way, saying they don't want lies to be spread. NPR did manage to reach one Ukrainian soldier, who gave only a first name, Alexi, by phone. He said the Russian and Crimean offer to surrender their weapons and switch sides is unacceptable.
ALEXI: (Through translator) No, no one has surrendered. They remain loyal to Ukraine, faithful to the military oath. No one has given up their weapons.
KENYON: Alexi says Ukrainian units remain under attack, but if so, it's a particularly bloodless attack. Very few shots have been fired, and those went up in the air as a warning at a base near Sevastopol. Alexi says Ukraine's air defenses in Crimea have been seized by force, but both sides were under orders to avoid firing weapons, if at all possible. He says the Russians are using superior numbers to neutralize any threat from the Ukrainian side. Whether this incursion can remain violence-free is uncertain, by Alexi says the Ukrainian soldiers here won't let their country down.
ALEXI: (Through translator) Till the end, till the end. All our servicemen unanimously said they will stand until the end, whatever it takes.
KENYON: Standing just outside the base, 40-year-old Irina Petrovskaya says she drove here from the holiday beach resort of Yalta to tell the Russian troops to go home and leave Crimea alone.
IRINA PETROVSKAYA: (Through translator) Of course we are worried, because we make our living during the vacation season, and no one's going to come to Yalta for vacation if they feel the breath of the military on their neck. We don't even feel safe ourselves in these conditions.
KENYON: Prime Minister Aksyonov, meanwhile, says there's no need to worry, and this year's holiday season should be a success. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Simferopol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.