FEODOSIA, Crimea (AP) — Ukrainian soldiers piled onto buses and began their westward journey on Tuesday, leaving behind former comrades who saluted them from outside a base overrun by Russian forces. Ukraine’s defense minister, accused of crippling indecision, offered his resignation and was refused.
Acting Defense Minister Igor Tenyukh said he had received requests to leave Crimea from about 6,500 soldiers and family members— meaning about two-thirds of the 18,800 military personnel and relatives stationed there were so far taking their chances in the peninsula newly absorbed by Russia.
The acting president of the fledgling Ukrainian government on Monday ordered troops to withdraw from Crimea. Soldiers began departing that same day, and early Tuesday, servicemen escorted by Russian-commanded troops left a marine base on buses from the eastern Crimean port town of Feodosia.
As they left, Ukrainian servicemen standing outside the base saluted them and a small group of people standing outside looked on.
Tenyukh told parliament that he rejected criticism that he had failed to issue clear instructions to troops, but that he reserved to right to step down. Lawmakers refused his resignation.
Tenyukh also said that 6,500 soldiers had requested to leave Crimea together with their families.
“More than 6,500 servicemen and family — 4,300 servicemen and 2,200 family members — wish to continue serving in Ukraine’s armed forces and will be evacuated from the autonomous republic of Crimea,” he said.
Tenyukh said 18,800 Ukrainian troops and family members were stationed in Crimea before Russian annexed the region.
In an apparent effort to consolidate control from Kiev, Ukrainian police forces trying to detain a prominent member of a radical nationalist movement key in recent anti-government demonstrations killed the man after he opened fire, the Interior Ministry said.
Right Sector’s Oleksandr Muzychko, better known by his nom de guerre Sashko Bily, had become a recurring figure in Russian attempts to portray Ukraine’s interim government as dominated by radical nationalists. Moscow has cited the purported influence of groups like Right Sector to justify the absorption of Crimea.
Many in Ukraine downplay Right Sector’s importance. Police say Muzychko was sought for organized crime links, hooliganism and for threatening public officials.
Ukraine’s new government has struggled to exert authority since last month’s overthrow of Russian-supported President Viktor Yanukovych.
Leonard reported Kiev, Ukraine.