Feodosia, Crimea • As former comrades saluted them from outside a base overrun by Russian forces, Ukrainian marines in Crimea piled into buses Tuesday to head back to the mainland.
It was a low-key exit from this Black Sea port; fewer than a dozen friends and relatives were 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 after harsh criticism for authorities’ often-hesitant reaction to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Troops were given the stark choice of either staying in Crimea and switching allegiance to serve under Russia’s military, or leaving the peninsula to keep their jobs with the Ukrainian defense forces.
"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," Senior Lt. Anatoly Mozgovoy said after arriving in the Ukrainian city of Genichesk. He said he left behind his wife and 7-month-old daughter, who were staying with his mother-in-law in Crimea until he finds out where he is being deployed.
So far, 131 Ukrainian marines have left Crimea, the defense ministry said.
At a summit on nuclear security in The Hague, Netherlands, President Barack Obama said Russian troops would not be dislodged from Crimea by force. He noted 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 the capital of 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.
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.
The Defense Ministry, said 11 of its servicemen have been abducted by Russian troops and remain unaccounted for, including Col. Yuliy Mamchur, a commander who earned acclaim in Ukraine for defying besieging pro-Russian forces until his base was stormed over the weekend.
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