Pro-Russian forces seize Ukraine’s naval headquarters (Roundup)

London/Moscow/Brussels, March 19: Pro-Russian forces Wednesday captured the Ukrainian naval headquarters in Crimea even as UN chief Ban Ki-moon got ready for a visit to Russia and Ukraine.

A day after a Ukrainian soldier was shot dead, pro-Russian forces seized the Ukrainian naval headquarters in Sevastopol Wednesday.

A large number of Ukrainian soldiers in Sevastopol have defected or deserted but there are some who say they would fight rather than leave their posts, the Guardian reported.

However, the situation Wednesday was further confirmation that few soldiers want to engage in a firefight with the Russians.

Tuesday’s casualty was the first casualty of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Vladimir Putin announced Tuesday that Russia would absorb Crimea in its fold.

“We wanted to set free the prisoners in the base that are being illegitimately held there by their commander,” Vladimir Melnik, who claimed he was the head of a local self-defence unit, was quoted as saying.

He said a criminal case would be opened against the commander.

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a treaty Tuesday with leaders of Crimea to accept the Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol as part of Russian territory, defying condemnation and further sanctions by the West.

Claiming Crimea used to be and would be an “inseparable” part of Russia, Putin slammed the West for bringing “no democracy and freedom but chaos and violence”.

“We were cheated repeatedly by the West,” he said.

Crimea, a Ukrainian autonomous republic, held a referendum Sunday with some 96.6 percent of the people voting for joining Russia.

The referendum capped months of political unrest, triggered by the Ukrainian government’s decision last November not to sign an agreement on broader European integration.

Violent demonstrations and street clashes erupted in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, in late January, culminating with the removal by Parliament of president Viktor Yanukovych. Tensions mounted in the Crimea region, where additional Russian troops and armoured vehicles were reportedly deployed.

Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was scheduled to leave New York Wednesday afternoon for a visit to Russia and Ukraine in efforts to seek a peaceful solution to the Ukrainian crisis, Ban’s spokesman told reporters in the UN headquarters in New York.

“The secretary-general is departing New York this afternoon for a visit which will take him to the Russian Federation and to Ukraine as part of his diplomatic efforts to encourage all parties to resolve the current crisis peacefully,” said a message from the spokesman to the press here.

“The secretary-general has consistently called for a solution that is guided by the principles of the United Nations Charter,” Xinhua quoted the spokesman as saying.

Leading the UN push for parties in Ukraine to resolve the country’s ongoing political crisis through peaceful dialogue, Ban said Monday that he was “deeply concerned and disappointed” that this weekend’s Crimea secession referendum would only exacerbate an “already complex and tense situation.”

Ban’s first stop would be Moscow, where he would Thursday meet President Putin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and other senior officials, Ban’s spokesman said.

Meanwhile, Russia Wednesday mocked a European Council (EC) decision to bar its president from visiting Moscow.

EC President Herman Van Rompuy requested an urgent visit to Russia Monday to hear the Russian opinion about the crisis in Ukraine ahead of a European Union (EU) summit, Xinhua reported citing a Russian foreign ministry statement.

Van Rompuy’s wish was “commendable,” Moscow said, but by imposing a travel ban, Brussels was actually unwilling to know the truth about the developments in Ukraine.

“They have a new blacklist now, that of EU officials prohibited to visit Russia. Ironically, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy tops this list,” said the statement.

Moscow Wednesday accused Western countries of violating the Budapest Memorandum which guarantees Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

“The question is, how the guarantees (envisaged in the memorandum) could be matched with the US and the European Union’s (EU) threats to use sanctions against Ukrainian leadership during the riots in Kiev,” Xinhua quoted the Russian foreign ministry as saying in a statement.

The Budapest Memorandum, signed in December 1994, gave assurances on Ukraine’s territorial integrity or political independence in exchange for Kiev’s accession to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The memorandum was signed by Russia, the US and Britain.

In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Russia remains a member of the G8 in response to reports saying it was booted out of the group after signing a treaty accepting Crimea as a part of the Russian territory, a German government statement said.

Earlier Tuesday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius had reportedly said Western states agreed to suspend Russia’s G8 membership.

Speaking at a joint press conference with visiting Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho, Merkel stressed that so far, only plans for the G8 summit in Sochi are being suspended, Xinhua reported Wednesday.

“Apart from that, no decisions have been taken,” Merkel added.

IANS