Bullets fly as Russian special forces storm Belbek

Published by The Mail on Sunday (23rd March, 2014)

Russian armoured vehicles firing heavy machine guns and supported by scores of special forces soldiers yesterday stormed one of the last two remaining Ukrainian bases still holding out in Crimea.

The brutal assault at Pokryshkin airfield at Belbek, which left up to four wounded, was the first real clash involving the two countries’ armies since the Russians invaded the region four weeks ago.

I watched as an armoured vehicle smashed through the walls of the base. It was followed by squads of soldiers crouching behind shields, and Spetsnaz special forces with assault rifles fanning out in the grounds.

Stun grenades were thrown at the few hundred remaining Ukrainian support staff and pilots at the base. They were armed only with AK-47 rifles, pistols and homemade staves carved from branches.

One man was injured, kicked and beaten on the ground as two more armoured personnel carriers surrounded the facility and scores more Russian soldiers poured in, all wearing balaclavas and body armour.

A Ukrainian soldier fell near me as a stun grenade exploded, then ran off to join his comrades. ‘Look who are the real Nazis now,’ said one senior Ukraine officer.

Russian officers screamed at the Ukrainian troops to give up, with gunfire heard around the base. The unequal struggle carried on for 35 minutes, although the Ukrainians were ordered not to return fire by their officers. There was no panic, however, merely anger and abuse towards the invading army, punctured by bursts of nervous joking.

The Russian troops spread out around the base. One armoured personnel carrier drove in close to the headquarters, its machine gun pointed at the Ukrainian forces, while marksmen knelt beside it. ‘We will stay until the end, we will not give up,’ said one Ukrainian.

But the game was up after a stand-off that had lasted more than three weeks – to the growing frustration of the Russian forces who seized the arsenal and 35 aircraft at this strategically important base near Sevastopol last month. 

Its commander, a former fighter pilot named Colonel Yuli Mamchur, had emerged as Ukraine’s unlikely hero after marching his men into Russian fire aimed above their heads at the start of this strange conflict. 

Yesterday, minutes after officiating at a wedding between two of his junior officers, with sniper units moving into position on the hills above us, he told me he was ignoring the latest one-hour ultimatum to hand over his base. ‘The Russian Federation came here and told us to give up our weapons and leave. If we disagree, they will assault the base,’ he said.

Three and a half hours later, they did exactly that. The warning came with gangs of pro-Russian militia gathering outside the buildings, while armoured personnel carriers and jeeps with mounted machine guns moved into position nearby.

Arguments broke out at the gates between the militia and Ukrainian soldiers. ‘You have your aim to protect the base, but we have our aim to put our flag up,’ said one dressed in military clothing.

Minutes later – at 4.45pm – the unequal show of strength from Russia began as its heavily-armoured vehicles crashed through the 8ft high perimeter walls. There was confusion and shouting, then wailing from ambulances sirens and thumping of heavy machine gun fire. ‘This is the bitter truth,’ Colonel Mamchur said with an ironic smile.

Afterwards, he ordered his men to line up, just as they had a few hours earlier to celebrate their colleagues’ wedding with champagne. ‘Thank you for serving your commander. You can be proud of what you have achieved,’ he said. There were cheers, and even a few tears, from these tough-looking troops.

His men, with Russian rifles trained on them, movingly responded with a raucous rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem and shouts of ‘glory to Ukraine, glory to heroes’.

Then they were ordered by the Russians to return to their rooms while Colonel Mamchur was arrested and taken from the base. Many were worried about their families, with some wives and children still on the base. Crowds of men waving the Russian flag gathered at the gates behind a fourth personnel carrier, with triumphant chants of ‘Russia, Russia, Russia’ breaking out.

‘This was not necessary,’ said Major Vladislav Korgic, a Ukrainian fighter pilot. ‘There have been no shots fired in Crimea since World War Two and now we have their special forces opening fire. This is very hard, everyone is worried.’

The previous day I had listened as  Colonel Mamchur rebuffed demands from a Russian colonel to surrender the base. ‘According to United Nations laws this is part of the Russian Federation,’ declared the officer, wearing civilian clothes. ‘It is illegal for you to be here.’

‘No, this is the territory of Ukraine,’ replied Colonel Mamchur, in trademark brown leather jacket and large peaked cap. ‘I will protect my soldiers and the wives of my soldiers. So long as no one comes on the base, there will be no conflict.’

The Russian officer insisted the Ukrainian troops were acting illegally. ‘I want to be informed if you have given weapons to your staff,’ he said. ‘Our staff are guarding their territory,’ responded Colonel Mamchur.

‘You are an officer. You should understand my position. Every commander must chose his way, but I don’t want to kill anyone.’

As they talked, local men who supported Russian annexation shouted homophobic remarks at the colonel. ‘People have become crazy,’ said Colonel Mamchur’s wife Larissa, 44, who had stayed on the base during the besiegement. ‘I have had phone calls and texts saying lots of dirty and scary things. I’m proud of him, but worried.’

The Ukrainian troops knew an assault might be looming and felt abandoned by their bosses in Kiev. I saw two soldiers burning military documents on bonfires in the morning, while others carried personal possessions into cars.

Last night, Major Korgic said by phone from the captured base: ‘We are worried about our commander. We don’t know where he is and nor does his wife.’

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