Russian defence minister inspects troops in Crimea

MOSCOW, March 24 Mon Mar 24, 2014 12:03pm EDT

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MOSCOW, March 24 (Reuters) - Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu met troops in Crimea and inspected military bases on Monday, the most senior Russian official to visit the region since it was annexed by Moscow.

He also rewarded the former head of Ukraine's navy, Rear Admiral Denys Berezovsky, who was one of few Ukrainian officers to switch allegiances before Moscow formally annexed the peninsula, with the deputy command of Russia's Black Sea Fleet.

Shoigu visited as Ukraine announced the evacuation of its troops from Crimea, effectively yielding the region to Russian forces which stormed one of Kiev's last bases there in what has become the biggest East-West confrontation since the Cold War.

Shoigu, one of President Vladimir Putin's longest serving ministers and closest allies, was shown by Russian television station NTV meeting with Ukrainian officers who defected to the side of pro-Russian local authorities.

"The most important thing is that there not be any interim period when there is an absence of authority so that military hardware does not fall into the wrong hands," Shoigu told military commanders meeting in a white tent.

He also met Crimea's new pro-Moscow authorities - the region's prime minister, speaker of parliament and the mayor of Sevastopol, the city that is home to Russia's black Sea Fleet.

Russians Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev also visited Crimea on Monday and said former members of Ukraine's 'Berkut' riot police, a force disbanded and blamed for killing people in the unrest that ousted Viktor Yanukovich, would be integrated into the Russia police.

(Reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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