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Published: Monday March 24, 2014 MYT 3:40:02 AM
Updated: Monday March 24, 2014 MYT 3:41:02 AM

Ukrainian marines in Crimea seek honourable retreat

FEODOSIA, Ukraine (Reuters) - Their base has been overrun and their region annexed by Russia but the Ukrainian soldiers at Feodosia in Crimea are not giving up yet.

The Ukrainian flag and its marine standard fly alongside the Russian tricolour put up by the forces which seized the base of the 1st Separate Marine Battalion, Ukraine's top military unit, earlier this month, as Russia took over the Black Sea peninsula.

Russian troops wander freely through the base, but the Ukrainians appeared to have retained control of the armoury, the barracks and other facilities within the compound on Sunday, two days after Moscow formally annexed Crimea.

"There were provocations up until today; they were trying to threaten us and buy us," Ukrainian First Lieutenant Anatoly Mozgovoy said of the Russian troops, but "the flag will be up until the final order is issued."

Russia's Defence Ministry said on Sunday its flag is now flying over 189 Ukrainian military installations in Crimea, but Kiev, which has refused to recognise Russia's annexation of the peninsula, says they are still formally under Ukrainian control.

Neither Ukraine's new pro-European Union leaders nor their Western backers recognise Russia's annexation of Crimea, sealed in a referendum conducted a week ago after the armed takeover of the region, where around 58 percent of residents are Russian.

Kiev, which has proposed Crimea be declared a demilitarised zone by the United Nations with a pull-out by both Russian and Ukrainian forces, has yet to officially withdraw any troops, although many have been forced from their bases.

At Feodosia, the Ukrainian marines could be seen loading three trucks with high calibre machine guns and wooden crates appearing to hold weapons and ammunition.

Officers from the Ukrainian battalion, comprised of up to 750 men, declined to comment on the nature of the arrangement with the Russian troops but said they would not leave without their weapons and other equipment.

"This issue (withdrawal) is being negotiated at the top level," Captain Oleksandr Lantuh told Reuters at the base.

"During the next week the battalion will be relocated to the mainland. Personnel see no reason to leave vehicles and weapons behind. We are soldiers and we are responsible for it."

UKRAINE YET TO WITHDRAW

The unit was put into full combat readiness when the crisis started, but the base was quickly surrounded and blocked by armoured personnel carriers and masked infantrymen who were later replaced by marines from Russia's Black Sea Fleet.

Ukraine's Defence Minister Ihor Tenyukh said on Sunday that troops on Crimea were ready to relocate to the mainland but no official decision had yet been made.

While the takeover has been largely bloodless, one soldier was injured on Saturday when Russian troops smashed their way into one of Ukraine's main Crimean airbases, using armoured vehicles, automatic fire and stun grenades to seize control and detain the base's commander Colonel Yuliy Mamchur.

It is not known where Mamchur or three other Ukrainian officers taken from other bases are currently located, Ukrainian military spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov told Reuters.

"Neither Yuliy Mamchur nor other officers captured by Russian troops in Crimea have been released. We have no information on their whereabouts," Seleznyov said.

At Feodosia, soldiers were determined to walk out of the base under their own flag.

"There are people among us who wanted to leave," Mozgovoy said. "But we agreed to stay together until the end."

(Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets in Kiev and Alissa de Carbonnel in Moscow; writing by Alessandra Prentice; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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