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Tensions Mount as Ukraine Storms Russian Naval Base

By Lee Hockstader
The Washington Post
MOSCOW

In a sharp escalation of tensions between two nuclear-armed countries, Russia Monday said Ukrainian special forces had stormed a Russian-controlled naval base, arresting three officers and wounding sailors and civilians.

The incident took place in the Ukrainian port of Odessa late Sunday. The accounts, while varying, made clear that ties were continuing to deteriorate between Moscow and Kiev, which have quarreled for more than two years over who should inherit the former Soviet Black Sea Fleet.

Combined with other points of contention, such as the fate of Ukraine's nuclear missile force and the future of Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine that want to reunite with Moscow, overall relations have become alarming.

The Ukrainian action was in apparent retaliation for the departure of the Russian naval research ship Cheleken from the Ukrainian port of Odessa late Friday. The Ukrainians said the Cheleken, loaded with $10 million in navigational and marine equipment, was not authorized to leave and did so despite direct orders from Ukrainian authorities.

When the Ukrainians tried to prevent the Cheleken's departure, they were thwarted by Russian sailors, who were ordered to take up arms and prepare for hostilities, according to the Ukrainian Defense Ministry. It termed the Cheleken's departure as an act of piracy.

As the Cheleken sailed toward the Black Sea Fleet's home base of Sevastopol, it was pursued most of Saturday by Ukrainian naval ships, which tried to intercept it, Russian officials said. The pursuers were finally chased off by an attack group of Russian-controlled ships, and the Cheleken docked safely in Sevastopol late Saturday, they said.

The response from the Ukrainians came just over 24 hours later. According to Russian military officials, about 120 Ukrainian special forces assaulted a base of the 318th Russian Division Sunday night in Odessa, which was home to a small reserve unit of the Black Sea Fleet. They captured the shore area, a communications center, the armory and a secure document storage site.

The three top Russian officers at the base, including one first-rank captain and two second-rank captains, were arrested and led away in handcuffs, the officials said. In the action, the Russian officials said, sailors and their families, including children, were roughed up, beaten and injured by flying shards of glass.

A statement released by the Ukrainian Defense Ministry insisted there had been no assault, no injuries and no mistreatment of sailors or civilians. The ministry affirmed, however, that the Ukrainian troops had surrounded one installation full of Russian troops to "prevent unauthorized actions."