Moscow sends in more troops prior to vote in Crimea

REINFORCEMENTS::Two days before a referendum on Crimea joining Russia, a Russian warship offloaded trucks, soldiers and an armored personnel carrier

Reuters, SEVASTOPOL and DONETSK, Ukraine

Sat, Mar 15, 2014 - Page 7

Russia yesterday shipped more troops and armor into Crimea and repeated its threat to invade other parts of Ukraine, showing no sign of listening to Western pleas to back off from the worst confrontation since the Cold War.

Russia’s stock markets tumbled and the cost of insuring its debt soared on the last day of trading before pro-Moscow authorities in Crimea hold a vote to join Russia, a move all but certain to lead to US and EU sanctions on Monday.

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, responding to the death of at least one protester in Ukraine’s eastern city of Donetsk, repeated Russian President Vladimir Putin’s declaration of the right to invade to protect Russian citizens and “compatriots.”

“Russia is aware of its responsibility for the lives of compatriots and fellow citizens in Ukraine and reserves the right to take people under its protection,” it said.

Ukrainian health authorities say one 22-year-old man was stabbed to death and at least 15 others were being treated in hospital after clashes in Donetsk, the mainly Russian-speaking home city of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.

Organizers of the anti-Moscow demonstration said the dead man was from their group.

Moscow denies that its forces are intervening in Crimea, an assertion Washington ridicules as “Putin’s fiction.”

Journalists have seen Russian forces operating openly in their thousands over the past two weeks, driving in armored columns of vehicles with Russian license plates and identifying themselves to besieged Ukrainian troops as members of Russia’s armed forces.

Reporters watched a Russian warship unload trucks, troops and at least one armored personnel carrier at Kazachaya Bay near Sevastopol yesterday morning. Trucks drove off a ramp from the Yamal 156, a large landing ship that can carry more than 300 troops and up to a dozen armored personnel carriers.

US Secretary of State John Kerry was due to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in London yesterday in a last-ditch effort to head off tomorrow’s referendum in Crimea.

“What we would like to see is a commitment to stop putting new facts on the ground and a commitment to engage seriously on ways to de-escalate the conflict, to bring Russian forces back to barracks, to use international observers in place of force to achieve legitimate political and human rights objectives,” a US Department of State official said ahead of Kerry’s talks.

Meanwhile, the German Foreign Office yesterday said the referendum’s result would be “irrelevant.”

Office spokesman Martin Schaefer said the plebiscite “can be interpreted as a speeding up of the escalation of the situation.”

“There is no option in this so-called referendum for people to say they are happy with the status quo,” he said.

Meanwhile, Russia yesterday called on the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Europe to send its observers to monitor the referendum.

It said the participation of the monitors will “agree with fundamental OSCE principles and facilitate de-escalation of the situation in the region,” the statement said.

However, OSCE observers have repeatedly tried and failed to enter Crimea over the past days.

Earlier this week, OSCE Chairman Didier Burkhalter said the referendum “must be considered illegal” in its current form, ruling out an OSCE observation.

In further signs of Moscow’s belligerent posture ahead of the Crimea vote, the Russian Ministry of Defense yesterday said it would hold exercises with fighter jets and helicopters over the Mediterranean Sea.

Additional reporting by AFP