Some 200 pro-Russian vigilantes backed by several masked gunmen besieged Ukrainian navy headquarters in Sevastopol, Crimea, and threatened to cut off electricity and water if officers didn’t surrender the building.
The crowd blocked the exits from the base and used loudspeakers to urge the officers inside the building to surrender. Crimea, where ethnic Russians comprise the majority, has become the focal point of Ukraine’s crisis after an uprising centered on Kiev triggered last month’s ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych.
“If we get rid of the navy headquarters, we behead all their military units here,” Vladimir Tyunin, the organizer of the siege and head of the coordinating council of Russian organizations in Sevastopol, said in an interview. “We’ll cut the water and the power and will block all the gates with concrete blocks. Plus, we’ll stop the supplies of food. I don’t think these guys will last for long.”
The vigilantes, whom he described as Sevastopol self-defense activists, chanted “good man” every time a Ukrainian officer came out of the building.
At least seven officers left the base after the siege began, according to Tyunin. Ukrainian fleet commander Serhiy Haiduk remains in the building, as well as his predecessor, Rear Admiral Denys Berezovsky, he said. Berezovsky, who defected to Crimean pro-Russian authorities on Sunday, is trying to convince officers to leave the base, Tyunin said.
Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said in televised remarks that Russia has threatened to seize his country’s warships in the Crimea. Russia earlier denied a report that it had given the ships near the port of Sevastopol until 5 a.m. to surrender their weapons and capitulate.
Ukraine has mobilized its army and called for foreign observers. Western diplomats are seeking to calm tensions, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry scheduled to arrive in Kiev, the capital, today.
Pro-Russian organizations have taken control of Sevastopol, home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Posters on walls call for militia recruits to gather at the “Russian Dumplings” cafe. Gunmen hold positions in the seaport, and Russian military trucks with soldiers are moving in the city.
Crimean authorities plan a regional referendum March 30 on whether the area should have more independence from Kiev.
“We need to make it till the referendum. And the way for us is to be independent or to become a part of Russia,” said Dmitry, 25, a police sergeant who refused to give his last name.
Russian legislators presented a draft Feb. 28 that facilitates the annexation of Crimea if the referendum produces pro-Russia results.
“I have no doubts. I was born in 1981. And I was taught that the capital of my country is Moscow,” said Dmitry Maksakov, a sailor who works for a local company.
A roadblock between Sevastopol and Simferopol, Crimea’s capital, had barriers made from old tires this morning. They were replaced by large concrete blocks in the evening.
To contact the reporter on this story: Stepan Kravchenko in Simferopol at firstname.lastname@example.org