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Pro-Russian militias seize Ukraine's Crimean navy HQ

SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine -- Pro-Russian forces captured Ukraine's naval commander after seizing his headquarters in Crimea on Wednesday as Moscow's grip tightened on the peninsula despite Western warnings its “annexation” would not go unpunished.

Kiev said it was dispatching its defense minister but Crimea's regional leader said he would be barred from entry amid mounting tensions in a region at the epicenter of the worst East-West standoff since the Cold War.

Dozens of despondent Ukrainian soldiers — one of them in tears — filed out of the Ukraine's main navy base in the Black Sea port city of Sevastopol after its storming by hundreds of pro-Kremlin protesters and Russian troops.

“We have been temporarily disbanded,” a Ukrainian lieutenant who identified himself only as Vlad told AFP.

“I was born here and I grew up here and I have been serving for 20 years,” he said as a Russian flag went up over the base without a single shot being fired in its defense. “Where am I going to go?”

A Russian forces' representative said that Ukraine's navy commander Sergiy Gayduk — appointed after his predecessor switched allegiance in favor of Crimea's pro-Kremlin authorities at the start of the month — had been detained.

“He was blocked and he had nowhere to go. He was forced out and he has been taken away,” Igor Yeskin told reporters.

A defense ministry spokesman in Crimea said pro-Russian forces also seized the checkpoint set up in front of a Ukrainian military base in the region's western port town of Novoozerne.

He said they used a tractor to ram open the gate and were now in a standoff with Ukrainian troops.

The Ukrainian government dispatched acting Defense Minister Igor Tenyukh and First Deputy Prime Minister Vitaliy Yarema to the region for urgent mediation talks.

But Crimea's self-declared prime minister Sergei Aksyonov told the Interfax news agency while on a visit to Moscow that “no one will let them into Crimea and they will be sent back.”

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Members of a pro-Russian self-defense force remove a Ukrainian Navy flag, left, and the Ukrainian flag at the Ukrainian Navy headquarters in Sevastopol, Crimea on Wednesday, March 19. (AP)

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