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Ukraine to evacuate its troops from Crimea

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By The Associated Press
Thursday, March 20, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

SEVASTOPOL, Crimea — Surrendering to Russia's inexorable seizure of Crimea, Ukraine announced plans on Wednesday to withdraw its troops from the strategic peninsula as Moscow-backed forces began what appeared to be a steady occupation of the region's military facilities.

Russian-speaking troops forced their way onto Ukraine's main naval base in Sevastopol and detained Ukraine's navy commander, Rear Adm. Sergei Haiduk.

A news agency close to the Russian-backed local authorities reported that he had been summoned for questioning by prosecutors. But later in the day, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered the Crimean authorities to release Haiduk.

Ukraine has been powerless to prevent Russian troops from taking control of Crimea, which President Vladimir Putin formally annexed on Tuesday with the stroke of a pen after a hastily organized referendum in Crimea favored secession.

Forlorn-looking Ukrainian soldiers streamed out of the naval base carrying their belongings in bags, watched by a group of local militia and Cossacks, joined by officers from Russia's Black Sea Fleet.

With thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and sailors on military bases, surrounded by heavily armed Russian forces and pro-Russia militia, the Kiev government said it was drawing up plans to evacuate its outnumbered troops from Crimea and would seek support from the United Nations to turn the peninsula into a demilitarized zone.

“We are working out a plan of action so that we can transfer not just servicemen, but first of all, members of their family who are in Crimea, quickly and effectively to mainland Ukraine,” said Andriy Parubiy, secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council.

How many retreating troops Ukraine will have to absorb was unclear. Many servicemen have switched sides to Russia. Ukrainian authorities said they were prepared to relocate as many as 25,000 soldiers and their families.

Vice President Joe Biden, in Lithuania trying to reassure nations bordering Russia, said the United States would stand by them.

“We're in this with you, together,” Biden said.

In a warning to Moscow, Biden declared that the United States will respond to any aggression against its NATO allies, including neighbors to Russia.

Biden said the U.S. was “absolutely committed” to defending its allies, adding that President Obama plans to seek concrete commitments from NATO members to ensure the alliance can safeguard its collective security.

“Russia cannot escape the fact that the world is changing and rejecting outright their behavior,” Biden said.

Parubiy, meanwhile, announced that Ukraine would hold military maneuvers with the United States and Britain, signatories, along with Russia, of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum.

The document was designed to guarantee Ukraine's territorial integrity when it surrendered its share of Soviet nuclear arsenals to Russia after the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. Ukraine has accused Russia of breaching the agreement by taking over the Crimean peninsula.

In Washington, the Pentagon said it would participate as planned in a multinational military exercise this summer in Ukraine. The ground maneuvers have been held annually for years with forces from Britain and other NATO countries as well as Ukraine, which has a partner relationship with NATO but is not a member.

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