6 Ukrainian officers freed by Russia; 5 still held captive
KIEV, Ukraine -- Six Ukrainian military officers detained by Russian troops in Crimea have been released and were being evacuated Wednesday from the Black Sea peninsula, but five still remained in custody.
Russian forces over the last few weeks have stormed one Ukrainian military base after another in Crimea, which was annexed by Russia after residents voted in a contentious referendum March 16 to secede from Ukraine.
A Defense Ministry spokesman said the released officers included Col. Yuliy Mamchur, a commander who has earned wide acclaim for defying the pro-Russian forces who besieged his base for almost three weeks.
President Oleksandr Turchinov said he hopes to see the freed officers Thursday in the capital, Kiev.
"Those officers that so bravely conducted themselves will indubitably be awarded and promoted for their courage," he said.
Five more servicemen including a colonel were still being detained, Defense Ministry spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov said. He spoke to the colonel Wednesday and said the officer was coming under sustained pressure to switch over and work for the Russians.
In addition to storming Ukraine’s military bases in Crimea, Russian troops have also seized numerous warships there, leaving Ukraine’s navy almost entirely depleted.
Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, who met Wednesday with his Ukrainian counterpart Andriy Deshchytsia, called the confiscations "piracy."
Sikorski also voiced concerns that Russian President Vladimir Putin had drawn up "an ambitious plan that could possibly go far beyond Crimea."
Deshchytsia said Ukraine’s army and civilians would organize to resist any Russian incursions into eastern Ukraine, which is heavily populated by Russian speakers.
"As far as eastern Ukraine regions are concerned, I must say that we will defend them," he said.
Talking later to The Associated Press, Sikorski supported an idea to decentralize some power in Ukraine but said Russia’s pressing for a federation system "must not mean a plan for a creeping partitioning" of Ukraine.
The country of 46 million is politically divided, with many residents in the west favoring ties with the 28-nation European Union while residents in the east back having closer ties with Russia.
In Brussels, President Barack Obama said Russia must not be allowed to "run roughshod" over its neighbors as it has done in Ukraine. He said no amount of propaganda coming out of the Russian government can make right something the world knows is wrong.
In another sign of the seething tensions between Moscow and Kiev, Russia accused Ukrainian officials Wednesday of barring Russian commercial airline crews from going outside their planes in Ukrainian airports. Russian authorities have previously complained that Ukrainian border guards have blocked some Russian men from crossing, fearing they may be activists coming to stir up trouble.
Oleg Slobodian, spokesman for the Ukrainian border service, denied any policy to keep Aeroflot crews on their planes. He said the only time a crew member was prevented from entry was on March 24, when a passport check revealed that the man had a travel ban. In solidarity, the rest of the airplane’s crew remained on board with him, he said.
In addition to Ukraine’s tenuous security situation, the country also has a teetering economy and mounting debts. Russia is hiking natural gas prices for Ukraine and the International Monetary Fund is negotiating with government officials about financial reforms before agreeing to a bailout loan that could be up to $20 billion.
Polish minister Sikorski said he felt Ukraine was very close to getting the bailout because of the new government’s "determination" to carry out financial reforms.
Household gas prices in Ukraine will rise 50 percent beginning May 1, Yuriy Kolbushkin of the state energy company Naftogaz said Wednesday. He said it was part of efforts to make utility costs economically viable for the state by 2018.
In London, British Prime Minister David Cameron promised to "stand up very strongly" for the Ukrainian people as he met a delegation of the country’s politicians, including former heavyweight boxer Vitali Klitschko.
"We expect support from Great Britain," Klitschko said after the meeting.
The U.S. and the EU have slapped sanctions on Russia for its actions in Crimea, but so far Russia has shrugged them off as unimportant.
Monika Scislowska in Odessa, Ukraine, Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Cassandra Vinograd in London contributed to this report.
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