March 26, 2014 / 7:41 PM / 5 years ago

Russia frees Ukrainian officers 'illegally' held in Crimea

SEVASTOPOL, Crimea (Reuters) - An airbase commander who has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance in Crimea was released by Russian forces after being “illegally” detained, Ukraine’s acting president said on Wednesday.

The freeing of Colonel Yuliy Mamchur, along with three fellow officers, follows Russia’s takeover of the last military ship controlled by Ukraine in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula whose largely bloodless annexation Ukraine refuses to recognize.

“Thanks to measures taken by the Ukrainian authorities...(the officers), who were illegally detained, are now being freed,” acting President Oleksander Turchinov said in a televised briefing. “I very much hope we can see them in Kiev tomorrow.”

Mamchur gained national attention earlier in March when he and his men, carrying no weapons and singing the Ukrainian national anthem, stood up to Russian soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs in order to be allowed to guard their airbase along with Moscow’s men.

On Saturday, Russian forces used stun grenades and automatic weapons to gain full control of the base and took him into custody.

His wife and the families of the other servicemen have since expressed their concerns over the possible treatment of the officers while in custody. It was not clear where they were being held.

A Ukrainian military spokesman said the men were heading north to Chongar, one of Crimea’s two narrow landlinks to mainland Ukraine, following their release.

“Mamchur is exhausted but there are no signs he was beaten,” navy spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov said.

Russia has consolidated its military hold over Crimea in recent days, seizing ships and the remaining facilities under Ukrainian control.

On Wednesday, Ukraine confirmed its last military ship in Crimea, the minesweeper Cherkasy, had been taken over following an operation by Russian forces in speedboats and helicopters the previous evening.

There were no injuries and the crew remained on board until the morning when they went ashore.

Kiev ordered its remaining forces to withdraw for their own safety on Monday, but not all troops have yet left the Black Sea peninsula and some ships have been prevented from leaving.

On Monday Cherkasy attempted without success to break to the open sea through a blockade at the entrance to the bay. The Russian navy blocked the route earlier this month by scuttling three hulks in the channel.

Seleznyov said the minesweeper had been towed by a tug boat to its anchorage on Wednesday after sustaining damage during the Russian raid.

Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets in Kiev and Gabriela Baczynska in Sevastopol; Writing by Alessandra Prentice and Richard Balmforth; Editing by Ruth Pitchford

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