By Yuras Karmanau
and Dalton Bennett
SEVASTOPOL, UKRAINE: Dozens of military trucks transporting heavily armed soldiers rumbled over Crimea’s rutted roads Saturday as Russia reinforced its armed presence on the disputed peninsula in the Black Sea. Moscow’s foreign minister ruled out any dialogue with Ukraine’s new authorities, whom he dismissed as the puppets of extremists.
The Russians have denied their armed forces are active in Crimea, but an AP reporter trailed one military convoy Saturday afternoon from 25 miles west of Feodosia to a military airfield at Gvardeiskoe north of Simferopol, over which a Russian flag flew.
Some of the army green vehicles had Russian license plates and numbers indicating that they were from the Moscow region. Some towed mobile kitchens and what appeared to be mobile medical equipment.
The strategic peninsula in southern Ukraine has become the flash point in the battle for Ukraine, where three months of protests sparked by President Victor Yanukovych’s decision to ditch a significant treaty with the 28-nation European Union after strong pressure from Russia led to his downfall. A majority of people in Crimea identify with Russia, and Moscow’s Black Sea Fleet is based in Sevastopol, as is Ukraine’s.
Vladislav Seleznyov, a Crimean-based spokesman for the Ukrainian armed forces, told AP that witnesses had reported seeing amphibious military ships unloading around 200 military vehicles in eastern Crimea on Friday night after apparently having crossed the Straits of Kerch, which separates Crimea from Russian territory.
“Neither the equipment, nor the paratroopers have insignia that identify them as Russian, but we have no doubt as to their allegiance,” Seleznyov said.
The amphibious operation appeared to be one of the largest movements of Russian military forces since they appeared in Crimea a week ago.
Seleznyov also said a convoy of more than 60 military trucks was spotted Saturday heading from Feodosia toward Simferopol, the regional capital. An AP reporter caught up with the convoy and trailed it to a Russian-controlled airfield. In the rear of the vehicles, heavily armed soldiers could be seen, though none appeared to have identifying badges or insignia. Soldiers spat at the reporters following them.
A small plane belonging to the Ukrainian border guards was fired on by “extremists” using automatic weapons as it flew near the administrative border of Crimea, but took evasive maneuvers and escaped unscathed, the Interfax news agency reported, quoting Ukrainian officials.
The regional parliament in Crimea has set a March 16 referendum on leaving Ukraine to join Russia, and senior lawmakers in Moscow said they would support the move, ignoring sanctions threats and warnings from President Barack Obama that the vote would violate international law.