Folk musicians try to calm tense troops in Crimea

Perevalnoye, Crimea: As young Crimean marines stared grim-faced over the concrete wall of their barracks,  as they began their fifth day under siege by dozens of heavily armed but unidentified Russian troops, an extraordinary scene unfolded just metres away.

Seven brightly dressed performers and their sound crew stepped out of a minivan, set up two speakers and a mixer console, donned headset microphones and began belting out Russian folk songs.

They were here, said MC Alyona Udalova, to cheer up the soldiers.

Which ones, we asked. The Ukrainians trapped inside their barracks or Russians preventing them leaving?

''All of them … we are here to lift their spirits,'' she said of her group of performers who travelled from Sevastopol, about 100 kilometres away, to the Ukrainian military base in Perevalnoye.

A small crowd of locals gathered and clapped along to the music, and the mayor expressed his gratitude to the ''people standing here guarding our peace''.

The Russian troops – wearing deep green army fatigues, helmets and balaclavas but with no identifying insignia – arrived at the base on March 2 and demanded the Ukrainian soldiers pledge allegiance to Russia.

But as the pressure builds around them, the Ukrainian soldiers have refused to surrender, vowing to stay in their barracks and serve their country as they have sworn an oath to do.

Maintaining their days-long silence, the Russian soldiers declined to speak to the media, remaining mute and holding their weapons to their chests as they stood along the road to the military base. Others marched up into the hills at the foot of the Crimean mountains, backed by a small convoy of army jeeps and trucks.

They also prevented the Ukrainian soldiers speaking to journalists and stopped residents delivering food to those trapped inside the barracks.

''At first we were scared when the soldiers arrived,'' Dobroye mayor Igor Bodanov said. ''But we got used to it … We believe the soldiers are here for our protection, that they are stabilising the situation – what is happening in Kiev is much more frightening and chaotic than what is happening here.''

Despite claims that Russian troops were keeping the peace, reports emerged late on Friday that a group of armed men believed to be Russian soldiers had stormed the Belbek Ukrainian military base near Sevastopol, resulting in a tense stand-off between the opposing forces.

Russia now has an estimated 30,000 troops in Ukraine's Crimea region, Ukrainian border guards said on Friday, nearly twice the previous figure given by the government in Kiev, Reuters has reported.

They are backed by Russian Cossacks, who continue to ''stand guard'' outside the Supreme Council of the Autonomous Region of Crimea in Simferopol, maintaining they are there to allow Crimeans to ''make their own decisions without any pressure''.

''Everybody is nervous about what will happen in the next few days but … we are just here to keep the peace, we do not interfere in politics or in other’s political battles,'' said Konstantin Perenizhko, a Cossack from Kuban in Russia.

But while some locals were pleased to have the soldiers present, others say they want the foreign troops out of Crimea.

''We want to be left alone by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and his troops,'' said hotel administrator Masha in the all-but-empty Black Sea resort town of Alushta.

''The Russians say the troops are here to protect us, but what are they protecting us from – nobody is threatening us. Now lots of people who had booked to come here have cancelled because of the trouble … 90 per cent of our bookings are now cancellations.''

Ukrainian security remains on high alert in before the region’s referendum – announced suddenly by Crimea’s parliament on Thursday and scheduled to be held on March 16.

Ukraine’s interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has denounced the hastily convened referendum as ''unconstitutional and illegitimate'', while the White House has criticised ''Russia's ongoing violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity'' and urged its troops to return to their barracks.

At the same time, the leadership of Crimea has described the interim government, sworn in on February 27 after president Viktor Yanukovych fled the country, as illegitimate.

Meanwhile, Russian-backed troops prevented a team of 40 observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe from entering Crimea because they had failed to obtain ''official invitations'' from regional authorities, Agence-France Presse reported.

Smartphone
Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide
Desktop