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Monday March 3, 2014 MYT 8:40:02 PM
Monday March 3, 2014 MYT 8:40:58 PM
by alissa de carbonnel
PEREVALNOYE, Ukraine (Reuters) - If there is a frontline in Russia's so far bloodless military operation in Ukraine, it is here at a run-down base near a village on a highway through the mountains of Crimea, where Ukrainian troops are holed up, refusing to surrender to hundreds of Russians who have them surrounded.
The battle is not between the troops, who despite the standoff have not fired a shot in anger, but in the arguments among the civilians who have come here to support one side, the other, or sometimes - both.
A cluster of men from a nearby village carried Russian flags and periodically chanted "Russia! Russia!". They shouted at and chased away four women who came bringing food for the Ukrainian troops trapped inside the base.
Walking away, Ludmila Ivkina mumbled: "They can shout, 'Russia' all they want, but we can't talk about Ukraine when standing on our own land."
Another of the women, 22-year-old student Anya Dudnichko, had knotted a ribbon of Ukrainian yellow and blue in her hair.
"What kind of war is this?" she said. "It's an infiltration. No one has even declared war."
For now, both sides say they are working hard to avoid a first shot being fired. The Ukrainian military contingent in Crimea was far too small to provide armed resistance to Russian forces. The commander of its navy surrendered, and is now wanted for treason by Kiev.
But at a handful of locations Ukrainian troops have refused Russian orders to give up weapons and pledge allegiance to pro-Moscow regional authorities.
Here at Perevalnoye, the Ukrainians are shut up in two military compounds while hundreds of soldiers in dozens of trucks and armoured vehicles with black Russian military number plates have set up camp nearby.
Many of the Ukrainian troops have family in the nearby village of five-story Soviet-style apartment blocks. Wives and mothers gathered outside the gate, weaving around Russian soldiers, who stood at ease with rifles pointed to the ground.
"We are protecting our military base, we are under orders," one of the Ukranian soldiers shouted through the bars of an iron gate.
Svetlana Goncharova, 50, who works as a librarian at the Ukrainian base, said she was there in the hope that her presence would prevent violence.
"We are standing here with our boys. The situation is beyond all bounds," she said. "Maybe if they see that civilians are standing here with the men, no one will raise weapons."
In a region with deep military traditions that has long hosted the Russian Black Sea Fleet, and the Soviet fleet before that, it is hard for some to see either side as an enemy.
"Half of us are Russians here. My grandfather was a Soviet army officer, my father was a colonel, my husband is a retired Ukrainian officer - we are all ex-military, our fate is all intertwined. They are welcome as guests, but when they came to us in army boots, it angers us," said Goncharova.
Her words immediately sparked objections from some of the other women, who defended the Russians.
"They don't upset us. They are here to protect us. They are standing here peacefully," said Irina Fedusova.
"We don't want a second 'Maidan' like Kiev," she said of the protest movement that toppled the pro-Russia president, named after Kiev's central Independence Square. "We won't allow it ... We want Crimea to decide its own fate and not for anyone to dictate our fate."
A woman named Zhenya slipped into the side entrance of the base to bring a kettle, sweets and other groceries to her husband and the other Ukrainian soldiers.
"I already fought with half the people of Perevalnoye at the store because people say they should give in and change sides," Zhenia said. "The boys are tired but everyone is determined. They are under orders from their nation. ... My husband is laughing and smiling, but he said he will stand until the last."
"Everyone is scared that someone will spark a military conflict," she added.
Someone drove by the soldiers spaced out along the perimeter of the base shouting: "Thank you, Russia!"
Goncharova, the base librarian, said: "People who live here are divided into two camps. We all work together, we are all neighbours and we all have different opinions, but we aren't about to start punching each other."
(Additional writing by Peter Graff; editing by Philippa Fletcher)
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