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UKRAINE - RUSSIA

Russian troops storm Ukraine navy ship in Crimea

Photo: Mehdi Chebil / FRANCE 24
3 min

Russian troops stormed and took control of a Ukrainian navy ship in Crimea on Monday as Moscow continued to strengthen its grip on the region.

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The ship, which had previously been blocked in a lake in western Crimea by the Russian military, had been one of the last Ukrainian vessels in the region to fall under Kremlin control.

An AFP correspondent saw plumes of smoke rise over the Kostyantyn Olshanskiy moments after the Russian forces launched their Donuzlav Lake assault. A Ukrainian defence spokesman said the ship's crew had fired smoke grenades in self-defence.

It came shortly after Ukraine ordered its outnumbered troops to withdraw from Crimea.

Speaking in parliament Monday, acting President Oleksander Turchinov said the decision had been made in the face of “threats to the lives and health of our service personnel” and their families.

“The National Defence and Security Council has instructed the Defence Ministry to carry out a re-deployment of military units in Crimea and carry out the evacuation of their families,” he said.

Russia has moved to tighten its grip on Crimea in recent days following its formal annexing of the region on March 21.

On Saturday, Russian soldiers used armoured vehicles, automatic gunfire and stun grenades to overrun the Belbek airbase, while Ukrainian forces abandoned another naval base after it was attacked by pro-Russian demonstrators.

And on Monday Russian forces took control of a naval base in Crimea’s port city Feodosia, one of the last military facilities in the region still under Ukrainian government control.

‘Potential for escalation’ as Russian troops mass near border

Russian troops have also been massing along Ukraine’s eastern border, prompting the White House on Monday to express its concern over “the potential for escalation” of the situation in the region.

"We are watching very closely, we believe that Russia stands an enormous amount to lose" from any escalation, US Deputy National Security advisor Ben Rhodes told journalists as leaders gathered in The Hague to discuss a response to the crisis.

A US military officer told AFP the Russian military presence to the east of Ukraine was still increasing.

"They're still growing in numbers. They're still in a hot state of readiness," said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

However, there was no sign that Russian forces were about to launch an invasion of eastern Ukraine, the officer said.

"We haven't seen anything to suggest anything is imminent," the officer said. "But if they chose to move, it would not take long."

The Russians had roughly 20,000 troops near the border, including air and ground forces, air defence weapons, fighter jets, motorised vehicles, airborne units and cargo planes to move those troops, officers said.

A second defence official said the Russians had more than enough troops in place to launch an operation in eastern Ukraine if it decided to.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

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