Russia Moves To Consolidate Control Over Crimea

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KIEV, UKRAINE (CNN, March 22, 2104)- Russian forces moved Saturday to consolidate control over Crimea.

Six Russian special forces’ armored personnel carriers broke through the gates of Belbek Airbase, firing warning shots into the air, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense in Crimea, Vladislav Seleznyov, told CNN. One journalist was injured in the attack, he said.

Once inside, the Russians lined up the Ukrainians in one place, he said.

In a separate incident, pro-Russian self-defense forces stormed the Novofederoskoe military base, also in Crimea, taking control of it, a Ukraine Defense Ministry spokesman said Saturday.

Ukrainian forces on the base threw smoke bombs during the incident and retreated to the base’s headquarters, according to Seleznev, in a Facebook posting.

The base’s aviation brigade then sang the Ukrainian national anthem, lowered the Ukrainian flag and left the base, he said.

The incidents occurred as international observers were set to arrive in Ukraine to monitor the security and human rights situation in a posting expected to last at least six months.

But they will not enter the contested region of Crimea, a statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry said, because this “became part of Russia.”

Moscow annexed the territory this week following a controversial snap referendum there that produced an overwhelming majority of votes in favor of leaving Ukraine to join Russia.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will eventually deploy a total of 100 observers throughout Ukraine in hopes of “reducing tensions and fostering peace, stability and security.” They will also check that the rights of ethnic minorities are being protected.

Advance teams will be deployed within 24 hours, the OSCE said Friday.

The regional security organization may widen the mission to include 400 more monitors, and extend it for a second six-month period if requested by the Kiev government.

Russia, which is one of the OSCE’s 57 member states, approved the mission, according to state-run Russian news agency, RIA Novosti.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said it hoped the observers’ work would “help to overcome the internal Ukrainian crisis, stop rampant nationalist banditry, eradicate ultra-radical tendencies, help achieve national reconciliation and social respect, political, linguistic, educational, cultural and religious rights of the people in all regions of Ukraine.”

Russia has previously said it reserves the right to enter Ukrainian territory to protect ethnic Russians from what it says is a threat from ultra-nationalists and fascists.

Meanwhile, European leaders have demanded that independent monitors be granted access to the Crimean peninsula, which Russia now calls its own territory.

OSCE monitors made multiple attempts to enter Crimea during the height of the crisis when pro-Russian militias took control of the region. But armed men at the borders turned them back.

Ukraine, the United States and other Western powers maintain that the Black Sea peninsula is still a part of Ukraine.

“We must not allow a new division of Europe,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Saturday in Kiev, where he met with with Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk and acting President Oleksandr Turchinov.

Yatsenyuk also met Saturday with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who then reiterated that any solution must be a diplomatic one and called for direct talks between Kiev and Moscow, the U.N. spokesperson said in a statement.

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