Two killed in Crimea as crisis hits 'military stage'

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (2nd right), Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov (left), Crimean parliament speaker Vladimir Konstantionov (2nd left) and Alexei Chaly, Sevastopol's new de facto mayor (right), join hands after signing a treaty on
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (2nd right), Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov (left), Crimean parliament speaker Vladimir Konstantionov (2nd left) and Alexei Chaly, Sevastopol's new de facto mayor (right), join hands after signing a treaty on the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula becoming part of Russia in the Kremlin in Moscow on March 18, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP 

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (AFP) - Ukraine warned on Tuesday its conflict with Russia had entered a "military stage" and authorised its troops to shoot in self-defence after both sides suffered their first casualites since pro-Kremlin forces seized Crimea nearly three weeks ago.

The dramatic escalation to the raging security crisis on the EU's eastern frontier came hours after President Vladimir Putin signed a treaty claiming Crimea as Russian territory after the Black Sea region overwhelmingly voted in favour of switching from Ukrainian to Kremlin rule.

Ukraine's Western-backed Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told an urgent government meeting in Kiev that his ex-Soviet country's conflict with its giant nuclear-armed neighbour was threatening to spiral out of control.

"The conflict is shifting from a political to a military stage," Mr Yatsenyuk said in remarks broadcast live across the culturally splintered nation of 46 million people.

"Russian soldiers have started shooting at Ukrainian military servicemen, and that is a war crime," Mr Yatsenyuk said.

Ukraine's interim president Oleksandr Turchnynov later issued a statement placing responsiblity for "the blood of Ukrainian soldiers (on) the leadership of the Russian Federation and specifically President Putin." Regional defence ministry spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov told AFP the Ukrainian soldier had died after being shot in the neck when a group of gunmen stormed a military base in the northeast of Crimea's main city of Simferopol.

Mr Seleznyov said another soldier was wounded but did not specify whether the base was stormed by Russian soldiers or pro-Kremlin militia who also patrol the peninsula.

But the Ukrainian defence ministry said in a statement the military base was attacked by people "dressed in the military uniforms of servicemen of the armed forces of the Russian Federation." "For their self defence and protection of their lives, Ukrainian servicemen... deployed in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea are allowed to use arms," the defence ministry said.

Ukraine had previously forbidden its Crimean soldiers from opening fire - in some cases forcing them to stand guard at their bases with empty rifles - in order not to proke a Russian offensive that could spill into an all-out war.

The defence ministry statement identified the first Ukrainian victim as warrant officer S. V. Kakurin.

Pro-Kremlin militia death

A spokeswoman for Crimea's pro-Kremlin police department later reported that a member of the peninsula's "self-defence" force had also been killed in the same incident.

But she blamed both the death of the pro-Russian militia member and the Ukrainian soldier on shooting by unidentified assailants from a nearby location.

"They were shooting from the same location at both the self-defence forces and at the Ukrainian servicemen," Crimean police force spokeswoman Olga Kondrashova told the Interfax news agency.

Defence ministry spokesman Seleznyov said pro-Russian forces had by late on Tuesday taken complete control of Ukraine's Simferopol base.

"The centre has been taken under their full control. All the servicemen inside were lined up in a row and their documents seized," he said.

"They were all informed that they were under arrest." Mr Seleznyov said he could not immediately say how many Ukrainian soldiers had been arrested or the number of pro-Russians involved in the attack.

Russian forces took de facto control of the peninsula at the beginning of March after the toppling last month of the pro-Kremlin regime in Ukraine and the rise to power of a new Western-backed administration that is seeking closer ties with the European Union.

An AFP reporter outside a Ukrainian military unit in a suburb northeast of Simferopol heard a burst of gunfire coming from the building and saw two ambulances driving into the area.

The region around the military unit was sealed off by what appeared to be pro-Moscow militants.