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Soldiers struggle to understand Crimea crisis

BAKHCHISARAY, Ukraine -- A Russian soldier could not hide his tears as he leant against a tree, just meters from a Ukrainian military base in Crimea that his unit had surrounded.

“You have to understand him, he's ashamed of what's happening here,” said Gulya, the mother of a Ukrainian soldier stationed inside the base in Bakhchisarai.

“It's terrible that we fight amongst each other,” added the middle-aged woman, proudly describing herself as a “citizen of Ukraine.”

Turning to the crying soldier's comrades, she pleaded: “We're not against you, don't be afraid.”

The Black Sea peninsula has come under near complete control from Russian forces and local pro-Moscow militia as Ukraine threatens to sink into its biggest crisis since the Cold War.

But at Bakhchisaray, some 30 kilometers (20 miles) southwest of the Crimean capital Simferopol, the mood was relaxed, nonchalant, almost cordial.

Two-dozen soldiers in camouflage outfits and with Kalashnikovs slung on their shoulders strolled casually about in the street. One played with a dog.

Asked by an AFP journalist if he was Russian, the tearful young blue-eyed soldier nodded timidly.

For the Ukrainian officers at the base, there was also no doubt the men in camouflage gear were Russians although they had no insignia to show their origin.

“You just have to look at their uniforms,” said the base's deputy commander Volodymyr Dokuchayev.

Commander Sergey Stechenko confirmed that one soldier “introduced himself as a captain from the Russian Federation,” after unidentified men took up position around the base.

But there was little of the tension or animosity expected amid the ongoing mud-slinging between Kiev and Moscow, at least on the surface.

Ukraine accused Russia Monday of pouring more troops into Crimea, a region of Ukraine populated mostly by Russian speakers and a strategic host to tsarist and Kremlin navies since the 18th century.

Moscow has meanwhile repeatedly stated that it needs to defend its citizens and compatriots in the peninsula, and on Saturday President Vladimir Putin won legislative approval to send Russian forces.

Stechenko said the negotiators who came to him had two demands: that he and his men lay down their weapons and that they place all their facilities under joint supervision, by Russian but also Ukrainian forces.

“We cannot do this, we have sworn an oath to Ukraine,” said Stechenko, wearing a chapka fur hat despite the blazing sunshine.

“We have to remain loyal to the Ukrainian people, it's our land.”

“They're not at all aggressive ... They don't want to shoot at us, we don't want to shoot at them,” he said of the Russian counterparts.

But he admitted: “If they start shooting, we will fire back.”

Despite his position at the base, he seemed baffled as to how the situation had escalated so quickly after the ouster of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych -- who has since fled to Russia.

“Personally, I don't understand,” the base commander said of the crisis.

“We hope it will be resolved in a peaceful manner.”

Bakhchisaray was just one of several bases on the Crimean peninsula to be surrounded by pro-Russian forces over the weekend.

In a sign that some normality remained, curious residents had already gathered near another of the bases on Sunday, with some posing for pictures with the armed men.

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