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Russian troops fire warning shots over approaching Ukrainian airmen

Combined News Services

BELBEK, Ukraine -- Surrounded by the Russian forces who took over much of their military airfield in Crimea, some 300 unarmed Ukrainian troops made a peaceful attempt Tuesday to retake the base. They retreated after a dozen or so Russian soldiers fired warning shots into the air and said they would shoot if the Ukrainians did not turn back.

"In normal life, we would not point guns at each other and would not shoot at each other," said Capt. Severin Vetvitsky, 41, a Ukrainian air force engineer patrolling a different section of the Belbek base.

The air base is near Sevastopol, where Russia has leased a port for its Black Sea Fleet since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. The two militaries, especially in Crimea, had worked closely in the past.

The Russians ordered the Ukrainians to leave at gunpoint Monday. Tuesday, the Ukrainians marched up the hill to tell the Russians they wanted to return to their jobs at the dilapidated Cold War-era airfield.

Their wives accompanied them, but when they saw Russian snipers had assumed flanking positions and aimed their rifles, the airmen sent the women back.

On Monday night, there had been rousing, patriotic speeches in the Ukrainian barracks.

"We decided we would return to work. Any man who did not want to come, he would not be branded a traitor or a coward," said Col. Yuliy Mamchuk, commander of Ukraine's Sevastopol Aviation Unit, said. "Every man came."

Mamchuk tried to negotiate with a Russian officer. The Russians said they needed approval from their superiors to let the Ukrainians return.

After no one came, Mamchuk was approached by a member of a civilian self-defense militia from Sevastopol. Mamchuk found himself negotiating not with a Russian officer but a Crimean bar owner from nearby Balaklava in mismatched fatigues and black sneakers who gave his name as Yuriy.

"I realize this looks like a comedy," Yuriy said, but it was serious business. He said the people were afraid the Ukrainian airmen would take off in their planes and bomb Sevastopol.

Vetvitsky was one of the officers on patrol Tuesday at the section of the Belbek compound still held by Ukrainians. He and his compatriots had gone three days with little sleep, not much information about what was going on in the outside world and no clear orders from their commanders.

"We are worried. But we will not give up our base," said Capt. Nikolai Syomko, 36, an air force radio electrician, holding an AK-47 while patrolling.

Syomko said their relatives, including his mother, are extremely anxious.

"But at the same time she told me, 'You took an oath and you need to keep it until the end,' " he said.

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