Putin: troops to bases; warning shots in Crimea

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Ukrainian navy corvette Ternopil is anchored at Ukrainian navy base in Sevastopol, Ukraine, early Tuesday, March 4, 2014. Russian troops said to be 16,000 strong tightened their stranglehold on Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula Monday, openly defying the U.S. and the European Union and rattling world capitals and stock markets. (AP Photo/Andrew Lubimov)

Ukrainian navy corvette Ternopil is anchored at Ukrainian navy base in Sevastopol, Ukraine, early Tuesday, March 4, 2014. Russian troops said to be 16,000 strong tightened their stranglehold on Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula Monday, openly defying the U.S. and the European Union and rattling world capitals and stock markets. (AP Photo/Andrew Lubimov)

Russian navy ship minesweeper “Turbinist” is seen at harbor of Sevastopol, Ukraine, Monday, March 3, 2014. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said that Russian forces that have overtaken Ukraine’s strategic region of Crimea are demanding that the ship’s crew surrender. (AP Photo/Andrew Lubimov)

Pro-Russian soldiers block the Ukrainian naval base in the village of Novoozerne, some 91 km west of Crimean capital Simferopol, Ukraine, on Monday, March 3, 2014. Ukraine says Russian forces controlling the strategic region of Crimea are demanding that the crew of two Ukrainian warships in Sevastopol’s harbor must surrender. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

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SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine (AP) — Vladimir Putin ordered tens of thousands of Russian troops participating in military exercises near Ukraine’s border to return to their bases as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was on his way to Kiev. Tensions remained high in the strategic Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea with troops loyal to Moscow fired warning shots at protesting Ukrainian soldiers.

It was not clear if Putin’s move was an attempt to heed the West’s call to de-escalate the crisis that has put Ukraine’s future on the line.

It came as Kerry was on his way to Kiev to meet with the new Ukrainian leadership that deposed a pro-Russian president, and has accused Moscow of a military invasion. The Kremlin, which does not recognize the new Ukrainian leadership, insists it made the move in order to protest millions of Russians living there.

On Tuesday, pro-Russian troops who had taken control of the Belbek air base in the Crimea region fired warning shots into the air as around 300 Ukrainian soldiers, who previously manned the airfield, demanded their jobs back.

About a dozen Russian soldiers at the base warned the Ukrainians, who were marching unarmed, not to approach. They fired several warning shots into the air and said they would shoot the Ukrainians if they continued to march toward them.

The shots were apparently the first fired since pro-Russian troops — estimated by Ukrainian authorities to be 16,000 strong —tightened their grip on the Crimea Peninsula over the weekend.

There was no fighting elsewhere in Crimea early on Tuesday. A supposed Russian ultimatum for two Ukrainian warships to surrender or be seized passed without action from either side, as the two ships remained anchored in the Crimean port of Sevastopol. Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Vladimir Anikin said late Monday that no ultimatum had been issued.

Early on Tuesday, Putin’s spokesman told Russian news agencies that Putin ordered troops participating in military exercises in western Russia near the Ukraine border to return to their permanent bases. The order was issued almost a week after Russia began massive exercises involving most military units in western Russia, stoking fears that the Kremlin might use the troops to seize territory in pro-Russian areas of eastern Ukraine.

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Ivan Sekretarev in Sevastopol contributed to this report.

Associated Press

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