U.S. Military Leave Ukraine After Mass Anti-NATO Protests

CRIMEA, Ukraine -- About 200 U.S. reservists, whose arrival in Crimea in southern Ukraine sparked anti-NATO protests, will leave by Monday, but planned military exercises may still take place, Ukraine’s navy quoted by AFP has said.

“Half of them (reservists) are in the process of taking buses to Simferopol from where they will take a plane and return to their country,” navy spokesman Volodymyr Bova said.

“The other half will follow tomorrow (Monday).”

He said that the decision had been taken because the “reservists’ contracts had expired” and that it did not mean the cancellation of the upcoming NATO military maneuvers in Crimea.

“The holding of the exercises Sea Breeze 2006 will be decided by parliament,” which will consider the matter on June 14, Bova said.

Several dozen anti-NATO demonstrators had gathered in front of the building where the U.S. reservists were staying to observe their departure, he added.

The Sea Breeze 2006 exercises were designed to strengthen ties between the pro-Western government in Kiev and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

However the Crimean peninsula, an autonomous region with Ukraine, has pro-Russia leanings as it has been the homebase of the Russian Black Sea fleet at Sebastopol since its creation by Catherine the Great in the late 18th century.

It was transferred to Ukraine in 1954 by then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev but remains populated largely by Russians.

Besides local protests in Crimea, the planned exercises also triggered reaction from Moscow, which warned the United States and NATO not to push too hard to bring Ukraine into the fold.

Ukrainian authorities say that Russians have taken part in the protests, in violation of Ukrainian law. A leading Ukrainian weekly has said that the demonstrations have been masterminded by the Russian special security services, the FSB, formerly KGB.

On Thursday, up to 2,000 anti-NATO demonstrators protested outside the lodgings in Feodosia of the U.S. reservists.

While preparations for the Ukrainian-U.S. maneuvers were continuing, they would be held “only after adoption of a law” authorizing these and other international military exercises planned to be held by the end of the year, Ukrainian Defense Minister Anatoly Gritsenko said this week.

On Wednesday, Russia issued a sharp warning to the United States and ex-Soviet republics looking to join the NATO alliance, saying expansion of the bloc into lands the Kremlin considers its backyard would have a “colossal” and negative impact.

The lower house of the Russian parliament, the Duma, also overwhelmingly approved a “message” to the parliament of Ukraine expressing the “serious concern” of the Russian legislature at Kiev’s goal of joining NATO and saying this would violate treaty agreements between the two countries.

The contentious atmosphere in Ukraine has led to the postponement of another joint military exercise between Ukraine and Britain.

The Ukrainian defense ministry said Thursday “in the current situation” Kiev and London had decided “unfortunately” to postpone maneuvers which were scheduled to start June 12. No new date has been set.

Source: MosNews