Ukrainian soldiers loyal to the government in Kiev are under growing pressure from pro-Russian authorities in Crimea to disarm and abandon their military bases in the region.
Pro-Russian forces in Crimea on Wednesday entered the main Ukrainian navy base in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol, further raising fears of a full military confrontation in the crisis-hit peninsula.
Reports said several hundred self-defence militia members forced their way onto the headquarters and raised three Russian flags at the entrance of the building.
The incident came a day after Russia signed a treaty with local authorities to annex the region, and follows the deadly shootings of a Ukrainian soldier and a pro-Russian militia volunteer at an army base near the capital of Simferopol.
Paramilitary forces favourable to Moscow's takeover of Crimea had said they would respect a truce with Ukrainian soldiers loyal to Kiev until March 21.
But Wednesday’s storming of the Ukrainian navy HQ and the Simferopol killings suggested the siege of Ukrainian army bases in Crimea may begin before the deadline.
FRANCE 24 reporters on Tuesday watched uniformed men, suspected of being Russian troops, surround another key Ukrainian Navy building on Makraoussova Street in Sevastopol.
There have also been unconfirmed reports of two other Ukrainian military bases coming under pressure to give up their arms and positions.
Blocked in Sevastopol
Tensions between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces have also been exacerbated by Crimean officials’ alleged willingness to forfeit all military equipment on the Crimean territory.
"The stocks of weapons, military equipment, ships, everything will remain in Crimea and belong to the Republic of Crimea," Roman Khudyakov, a Russian lawmaker who had travelled to Crimea for last Sunday’s referendum on secession, told FRANCE 24.
The situation is particularly complicated in the coastal city of Sevastopol, where Russian ships are blocking the city’s strategic port on the Black Sea.
It is impossible for Ukrainian Navy vessels to join their fleet in the city of Odessa without approval from the Russian Navy. There are fears the imposing battle ships will no longer belong to Ukraine soon.
Despite the overwhelming military superiority of Russian forces in Crimea, some Ukrainian soldiers say they will refuse to yield their equipment or positions.
"It is out of the question,” Ukrainian Army Colonel Igor Vadimovich – whose base in Simferopol has been surrounded for more than two weeks – told FRANCE 24. "I can’t speak for the other units, but here we will not surrender our weapons and leave our base."
A resident of the Crimean coastal city of Sevastopol shows his support for Russia, brandishing the flag of the Russian Black Sea Fleet (blue cross on a white background).
Russian warships can be seen everywhere in the Bay of Sevastopol.
A Russian zodiac passes near a flood barrier decorated with both Ukrainian and Russian flags. The navies from both countries have worked side by side in Sevastopol since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Two Ukrainian war ships stranded in the Bay of Sevastopol. Besides the blue and yellow colours of the flag, the Ukrainian vessels can be discerned by the letter "U" on their side.
When the Soviet Union broke up in 1989, Ukraine claimed a quarter of the former Soviet Black Sea Fleet. Moscow now stands to regain some of the Ukrainian ships stranded in the Bay of Sevastopol.
Russian ships are visible in the background. They are blocking one of the exits out of the Bay of Sevastopol.
The silhouette of a monument built to honour the glory of the Russian Navy overlooks a part of the Bay of Sevastopol. The city bears painful memories of two bloody military sieges, during the Crimean War in 1855 and during World War Two.
Russian soldiers confidently patrol the perimeter of a base in the centre of Sevastopol, reassured by their vastly superior numbers.
A Russian soldier stands guard behind the gate of a Ukrainian military base in the centre of Simferopol, Crimea’s capital.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's speech supporting the annexation of Crimea was greeted by a small pro-Russian demonstration in Simferopol’s Lenin Square.
Date created : 2014-03-19