Drama and pain as Ukraine's Crimea air base falls

Pro-Russian protesters take down a Ukrainian flag during the storm of Novofedorivka Pro-Russian protesters took down a Ukrainian flag, replacing it with a Russian tricolour

The Ukrainian flag was still fluttering above the gates of Novofedorivka base when we arrived.

But inside, Russian soldiers were already in talks with the Ukrainians, ordering them to surrender.

Soon, a few hundred pro-Russian protesters gathered, clambering over the gates and tearing down the Ukrainian flag - replacing it with one from the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The takeover had begun.

The crowd barged into the base, delighted with their spoils. They headed for a building at the back still occupied by Ukrainian troops, resisting the Russian onslaught.

Start Quote

Crimea will always be Ukraine. I don't know what I can do next”

End Quote Illya Bureev Ukrainian officer

And then the storming began, the protesters tearing off Ukrainian emblems, prising open the door and ripping out furniture that had been used by the Ukrainians to barricade themselves in: desks, bed frames, chairs all removed or destroyed.

On the roof, the Ukrainian commander and his men stood, talking through a megaphone: "This is our base and our army."

The Russians below shouted up in response, proclaiming Crimea Russia's territory.

One side believes it's backed by last week's referendum supporting union with Russia. The other says it has the support of international law.

Pro-Russian protesters storm the base Pro-Russian crowds ripped out furniture used by the Ukrainian soldiers to barricade themselves in
Relatives of Ukrainian servicemen react during the storming of the base Ukrainian servicemen's wives and relatives - tearful with emotion - watched the assault
Ukrainian soldiers sing the national anthem as two Russian navy officers watch at Novofedorivka base The Ukrainian soldiers sang the country's national anthem before leaving the base

Then the Ukrainians threw smoke canisters down in defiance, a haze of fog engulfing the crowd.

But it was futile. Russian reinforcements arrived: thuggish groups demanding that everybody withdraw.

They jostled us, demanding our accreditation, one brandishing a false secret service identity card.

As we moved back, Russian soldiers went in. Half-an-hour later, the Ukrainians started to leave: every one of them, the base now under the complete control of the Russians.

Some of the Ukrainian troops were met by their wives, tearful with emotion.

A senior officer, Illya Bureev, told me he did everything he could for his country.

"I could never serve in the Russian army," he said. "Crimea will always be Ukraine. I don't know what I can do next. But all I feel is pain."

It was quick, well-organised and over before the Ukrainians could fight back: much like Russia's entire takeover of Crimea.

A month ago Novofedorivka was part of the Ukrainian region of Crimea. Today it was one of the last pieces to fall as Moscow completes its annexation.

Map of Crimea

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