SEVASTOPOL - Tensions in the Crimean Peninsula rose over the weekend when Russian forces blasted their way into a besieged Ukrainian army base and took control of a border post on the peninsula's east. Large numbers of Russian forces made their way to north-western Crimea and the land bridge connecting the peninsula to the Ukrainian mainland.
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Tensions on the diplomatic front did not recede either, as the Speaker of the Russian Parliament's upper house said that if the residents of Crimea vote to separate themselves from Ukraine in the referendum scheduled for next week, Russia will be happy to accept them.
The base that was attacked is used by the Ukrainian military's anti-aircraft forces, and is located some 5 kilometers from the port city of Sevastopol. Over the past week, it has been besieged by Russian soldiers and local militiamen.
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Late on Friday, the bases' electricity supply and telephone lines were severed and a truck carrying some 40 Russian soldiers slammed through its locked gates. Once inside, the soldiers leaped out and stormed the base. Some 70 Ukrainian soldiers stationed at the base took refuge in a bunker and refused to put down their weapons even when the Russian soldiers threatened to open fire.
The Russians eventually retreated after militiamen began attacking reporters standing at the entrance to the base, causing injuries to seven of them. Over the last two days, reports of attacks being made against foreign journalism crews have been proliferating. Militiamen who see the foreign press as anti-Russian are responsible for most of the assaults.
The Consulate General of Poland in Sevastopol suspended its activities following repeated attacks by pro-Russian groups. Poland is one of the most vocal critics of Russia's actions over the last few days and is pushing for the European Union to impose economic sanctions on Russia.
Also overnight, Russian soldiers took over a Ukrainian border patrol unit in the town of Schelkino, in east Crimea. After taking control of the outpost, they expelled the guards' families who reside next door.
Long convoys of Russian military trucks carrying soldiers, many without license plates as Russia is still claiming that its forces were not active in the peninsula, were seen Saturday making their way toward the land bridge connecting Crimea to eastern Ukraine. According to Pentagon estimates there are currently 20,000 Russian soldiers active in Crimea.
Russian combat engineers were seen placing mines in the land bridge connecting the peninsula to the mainland in order to foil any Ukrainian attempt to retake Crimea. Currently, Kiev has made no plans to order any such invasion.
The heads of the new Crimean puppet government visited Moscow on Friday, after unanimously passing in the Simferopol parliament a bill to separate from Ukraine and annex the region to Russia. They received a warm welcome at the Russian parliament, with upper house Speaker Valentina Matviyenko saying that if Crimea chooses after the March 16 referendum to join Russia, the Russian parliament will support the decision. However, her statement does not reflect the position voiced by Russian President Vladimir Putin's earlier this week, who said that annexing Crimea to Russia "is not being considered at the moment."
Even though Russia's invasion of Crimea was met by adamant opposition from Western leaders, other voices are beginning to be heard which, for the first time, recognize the annexation as a fact. British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said in an interview with the Guardian that Russia's central role in Crimea's internal affairs should be recognized, but Putin must first "drop his KGB mentality."
A third attempt by an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe observer mission to enter Crimea was thwarted when militiamen fired warning shots in the air when they tried to cross over into the peninsula. An official at the Russian Ministry of Defense warned Saturday that the international crisis brewing around Ukraine could lead to the suspension of the international observer missions monitoring the reduction of the Russian nuclear stockpile.
In the south-eastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhia, anonymous persons laid a funeral wreath in the national Ukrainian colors at a local synagogue. Rabbi Nahum Ehrentrau, the synagogue's rabbi, who was a victim of a firebomb attack a week and a half ago, said that he believed that it was an anti-Semitic provocation.