Ukraine's defense chief resigns as busloads of troops withdraw from Russian-controlled Crimea

The Associated Press

Ukrainian marines prepare to leave their base in Feodosia, Crimea, Tuesday, March 25, 2014. In Crimea, Ukrainian soldiers piled onto buses and began their journey to Ukrainian territory on Tuesday, as former comrades saluted them from outside a base overrun by Russian forces. (AP Photo/Valeriy Kulyk)

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By ADAM PEMBLE and PETER LEONARD, Associated Press

FEODOSIA, Crimea (AP) — Giving last-minute kisses to wives and girlfriends, Ukrainian marines in Crimea piled into buses Tuesday to head back to the mainland. Former comrades saluted them from outside a base that has been overrun by Russian forces.

It was a low-key exit from the eastern port of Feodosia, with fewer than a dozen friends or relatives on hand to bid the marines farewell. A troop transporter bearing black Russian military plates trailed the bus as it pulled away.

Their departure came as Ukraine's defense minister stepped down Tuesday after harsh criticism for authorities' often-hesitant reaction to Russia's annexation of Crimea, which was formalized following a hastily organized referendum this month. And while Ukraine struggled to deal with its humbling by Russia, it also faced the menace of seething Ukrainian nationalists angered by the police killing of a leading radical.

Troops were given the stark choice of staying in Crimea and switching to work for Russia or leaving the peninsula to keep their jobs with Ukraine.

So far, 131 Ukrainian marines have left Crimea, the defense ministry said. They are going to be stationed temporarily at a military barracks in the southern town of Genichesk but their final destination is still unclear.

One serviceman, 30-year old Senior Lt. Anatoly Mozgovoy, told The Associated Press that he left his wife and seven-month-old daughter behind to stay with his mother-in-law in Crimea.

"The Russians threatened, intimidated, bullied and tried to get us to switch sides to Russia. It has been very difficult to resist this enormous pressure but I have made a choice that I can live with," Mozgovoy said by phone from Genichesk. "We were greeted as heroes in Ukraine. I was able to breathe freely for the first time in months."

When he finds out where he is being permanently stationed, Mozgovoy plans to reunite the family.

At a summit on nuclear security in The Hague, Netherlands, President Barack Obama said Russian troops would not be dislodged by force from Crimea. He reminded the audience that one of the achievements of his first nuclear summit in 2010 "was Ukraine's decision to remove all of its highly enriched uranium from its nuclear fuel sites."

"Had that not happened, those dangerous nuclear materials would still be there now. And the difficult situation we're dealing with in Ukraine today would involve yet another level of concern," Obama said.

In an address to parliament in Kiev, Defense Minister Igor Tenyukh denied that he had failed to issue clear instructions to his troops but reserved the right to resign. The order to withdraw from Crimea was issued Monday, a week after many bases had already been stormed and seized by pro-Russian forces.

Lawmakers initially refused Tenyukh's resignation but later accepted it and replaced him with Col. Gen. Mykhailo Koval.

About 4,300 Ukrainian servicemen and 2,200 of their relatives have asked to leave Crimea, Tenyukh said Tuesday. That means about two-thirds of the 18,800 military personnel and relatives that he said were stationed on the Black Sea peninsula were taking their chances in Crimea.

Tenyukh said accommodations for incoming soldiers were being prepared at boarding houses and other facilities in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. Oleksandr Rozmaznin, deputy chief of operations for Ukraine's armed forces, said navy troops were being redeployed in port cities along Ukraine's southern mainland — in Odessa, Mykolaiv and Kherson.

The Defense Ministry, meanwhile, said 11 of its servicemen have been abducted by Russian troops and remain unaccounted for, including Col. Yuliy Mamchur, a commander who earned wide plaudits in Ukraine for defying besieging pro-Russian forces until his base was stormed over the weekend.