Start of ‘G7’ Ukraine crisis talks hosted by Obama: Report

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March 24, 2014

The Hague – US President Barack Obama gathered his allies in The Hague on Monday to hammer out a response to Russia's lightning annexation of Crimea, as Ukraine pulled its last troops from the peninsula.

G7 leaders meet at the official residence of the Dutch prime minister in The Hague on March 24, 2014

March 24, 2014

The Hague – US President Barack Obama gathered his allies in The Hague on Monday to hammer out a response to Russia's lightning annexation of Crimea, as Ukraine pulled its last troops from the peninsula.

G7 leaders meet at the official residence of the Dutch prime minister in The Hague on March 24, 2014

Obama and other leaders from the G7 group of top economies went into talks to decide further punishment for Russia's actions in Crimea as Moscow reportedly began talks with the Ukrainian delegation in the highest-level meeting between the two countries since the crisis erupted.

Ahead of the talks, Obama stressed that Europe and the United States were "united in our support of the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian people" and "united in imposing a cost on Russia for its actions so far".

In Crimea, Russian forces stormed a Ukrainian navy ship, with an AFP correspondent reporting plumes of smoke as a Ukrainian defence spokesman said the crew had fired smoke grenades in self-defence.

The G7 leaders gather for emergency talks on the sidelines of a key nuclear security summit here, with British Prime Minister David Cameron hinting that the price of Russian action in the Crimea could be expulsion from the wider G8, which includes Moscow.

Cameron said it was "absolutely clear" there would be no G8 summit previously planned in Russia and called on Moscow to "change course."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel also stressed that the "political conditions" were not in place for a G8 summit and that the format itself was not valid in the current circumstances.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a government meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, on March 24, 2014

However, Ukraine's Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsya stressed that Kiev sought to resolve the crisis through diplomacy.

"The position of the Ukrainian government is to use all peaceful means, all diplomatic and economic means to resolve this conflict peacefully," Deshchytsya told reporters.

"However, we don't know what are the Russian plans. What the plans of President (Vladimir) Putin (are). That's why we ask for meetings with the Russians. We want to find out what they are thinking about Ukraine. We want to live peacefully with Russia … we want to coexist … we want to sit down together and drink vodka together maybe," he added.

Moments later, Russia's Interfax news agency said that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had begun talks with Deshchytsya.

– 'Enormous loss' –

The diplomatic efforts came as Ukrainian authorities pulled out all servicemen and their families to the mainland.

In a televised address to the nation, Ukraine's acting president Oleksandr Turchynov said a decision had been taken "to conduct a redeployment of military units stationed in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea".

Crimea's pro-Kremlin deputy premier Rustam Temirgaliyev told Russia's RIA Novosti state news agency that "all Ukrainian soldiers have either switched to the Russian side or are leaving the territory of Crimea."

People queue to get their Russian passports in the Crimean city of Sevastopol on March 24, 2014

Turchynov's announcement came less than a month after Putin won authorization to use force in response to the February 22 ouster of pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych's regime by more nationalist leaders who are seeking a closer alliance with Europe.

Ukraine's increasingly demoralized forces had been steadily losing ground on the Black Sea peninsula and saw their main airbase outside the regional capital Simferopol stormed on Saturday.

– Europe and America 'united' –

Earlier Monday, the White House said it was "very concerned" about the risk of escalation as Russia massed its troops on Ukraine's eastern border.

A top NATO commander had warned Sunday that the Western military alliance was carefully watching massive Russian troop formations on the eastern border of Ukraine that could theoretically make a push across the vast ex-Soviet country at any point.

Moscow has denied any such plans despite Putin's open ambition to resurrect vestiges of the Soviet empire and stamp his authority over eastern European nations that sought protection from the West following the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.

Russian navy sailors clean their ship moored in the bay of the Crimean city of Sevastopol on March 24, 2014

But the Kremlin has made clear it intends to "protect" compatriots in the Russified southeastern swaths of Ukraine that it says have been victimized by violent nationalists since last month's rise to power of a pro-European team.

The Kremlin stamped its claim on Crimea on Monday with a symbolic visit by Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu — the first top Moscow official to visit the mostly Russian-speaking region of two million people since its March 16 independence referendum.

"In the last days, a group of officers has been checking and making sure there is no interim stage or anarchy, making sure that the military hardware does not fall into not the best hands," Shoigu said in comments broadcast on Russian state television.

– Commando-style operation –

Russia's latest surprise assault in the rugged region the size of Belgium came in the pre-dawn hours on Monday and involved both armored personnel carriers and stun grenades.

The Ukrainian defence ministry said Russian paratroopers were lowered onto the Feodosia naval base from four helicopters in a commando-style operation in which guns were fired in the air and stun grenades strewn across the facility.

Several military trucks were seen leaving the base less than two hours later with some Ukrainian marines whose hands had been bound.

An AFP reporter spoke to several marines who had later been freed but who found their belongings were missing when they returned to the barracks.

Ukraine said two commanders were kicked in the face before being taken away in a helicopter in an unknown direction.


Courtesy: AFP

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