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Hours after a group of armed men supported by Russian forces seized control of the Ukrainian naval headquarters in the Crimean port of Sevastopol on Wednesday, Kiev announced plans to evacuate all military personnel from the peninsula, The New York Times reported. The move, which effectively concedes loss of the territory to Russia, was announced by Ukrainian national security head Andriy Parubiy.
Earlier on Wednesday, pro-Russian Crimean authorities took over Ukraine’s naval headquarters in Sevastopol, detained the facility’s commander and reportedly blocked Ukraine’s interim defense minister from traveling to the peninsula.
The Russian-speaking troops wore helmets, flak jackets and uniforms with no identifying insignia. By afternoon, they were in full control of the naval headquarters. It was not immediately clear how many, if any, Ukrainian servicemen remained on the base.
There was no violence during the takeover by the men, who were apparently from so-called self-defense units that support Crimea's transition from Ukrainian to Russian control. Ukraine's defense ministry said the group was led by pro-Russian militiamen and Cossacks.
The takeover comes a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin formally welcomed Crimea into the Russian Federation – a move Western countries lambasted as a violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Under occupation by Russian troops since last month, Crimea’s majority ethnic Russian residents overwhelmingly voted in a referendum Sunday to rejoin Russia.
The strategically located Black Sea peninsula of Crimea was once part of Russia but has been part of Ukraine since 1954, though it had been granted substantial autonomy under the 1992 Ukrainian constitution. The pro-European, interim rulers in Kiev – who came to power last month after massive protests toppled Russian-allied President Viktor Yanukovich – have refused to accept the split, saying that it violated international law.
Following the death of a Ukrainian serviceman on Tuesday, authorities in Kiev issued an order authorizing Ukrainian forces in Crimea to shoot if necessary for self-defense.
The men who took over the base on Wednesday told Al Jazeera that they had decided to make their move in response to the self-defense order.
Hoping to avoid a confrontation, Ukrainian forces had stowed their guns elsewhere in the base when the men walked in. Many of the pro-Russian troops reportedly did not have bullets in their guns.
At a cabinet meeting in Kiev on Wednesday, acting Ukraine Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk asked First Vice Prime Minister Vitaliy Yarema and Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh to fly to Crimea immediately to de-escalate the crisis there, and to try to prevent the conflict from turning into a military one. The officials immediately left for the airport.
Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov responded on Wednesday by saying the officials would not be allowed to enter the region, Russian news agency Interfax reported.
"They are not wanted in Crimea. Nobody will let them into Crimea — they will be sent back," Interfax quoted Aksyonov as saying.
Interfax later cited Ukrainian Welfare Minister Lyudmila Denisova as saying the officials had been denied entry to Crimea. She said an emergency session of the National Security and Defense Council will be held in response.
The Crimean authorities do not recognize the government in Ukraine, while the parliament in Kiev does not accept Crimea's referendum to join Russia as legal.
Also on Wednesday, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced in a statement that he would travel to Russia and Ukraine this week to “encourage all parties to resolve the current crisis peacefully.”
Ban will meet with Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Thursday before traveling to Kiev for talks with Ukraine’s interim leaders.