Ukrainian police block a regional administrative building during a pro-Russian rally in Donetsk. About 5,000 demonstrated in favor of holding a referendum on secession and absorption into Russia, similar to Crimea’s. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
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MOSCOW — Three Ukrainian military officers on the Crimean peninsula remained missing Sunday and were believed to be held by Russian forces, a Ukrainian official said, as the Russians continued to seek full control of the peninsula’s military sites.
Col. Yuli Mamchur, the commander of an air force unit stationed in the town of Lubimovka near Sevastopol, had been missing more than 24 hours Sunday evening after his base near Sevastopol was taken over Saturday by forces who sent armored personnel carriers smashing through the base’s walls and fired shots and stun grenades.
A Ukrainian serviceman was reported wounded. It was unclear if the forces were Russian military or local pro-Russia militia.
Ukraine President Oleksandr Turchynov said Colonel Mamchur was “abducted” by the forces. Prominent politician Vitali Klitschko said Sunday that Colonel Mamchur is being held by the Russian military in a jail in Sevastopol, the Crimean city that is the base of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
Mr. Klitschko was one of the leaders during three months of protests in Ukraine that culminated in late February with President Viktor Yanukovych fleeing the country and interim authorities taking power before a May 25 presidential election. The protests were triggered by Mr. Yanukovych’s decision to reject a deal for closer ties with the European Union and turn to Moscow instead.
The deputy commander of Ukraine’s navy, Ihor Voronchenko, also was unaccounted for and believed held by the Russians after he left navy headquarters in Sevastopol, which is under Russian control, said Alexei Mazepa, a Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman.
Another officer, navy Capt. V.M. Demyanenko, was taken by the Russians in Sevastopol on Sunday morning and his whereabouts remained unknown.
Russian forces occupied Crimea late last month, surrounding most Ukrainian military bases and units. Russian President Vladimir Putin declared last week that his country was taking over Crimea after a referendum among the region’s voters, a majority of whom speak Russian, backing annexation.
A pro-Russian activist waves Russian and former Soviet flags with a ribbon symbolizing the Soviet victory in WWII, during a rally against usurpation of power and political repression.
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Since then, Russian troops and pro-Russian militia have been seizing military sites still in Ukrainian hands. The Russian Defense Ministry news service reported Sunday that its nation’s flag has been raised and the Russian national anthem sung at the sites of 189 Ukrainian military units deployed in Crimea.
U.S. and Ukrainian officials warned Sunday that Russia may be poised to expand its territorial conquest into eastern Ukraine and beyond, with a senior NATO official saying that Moscow might even order its troops to cross Ukraine to reach Moldova.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsya, appearing on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, said the prospect of war with Russia is growing.
“We don’t know what Putin has in his mind and what would be his decision,” Mr. Deshchytsya said. “That’s why this situation is becoming even more explosive than it used to be a week ago.”
In Brussels, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Europe, said Russia had assembled a large force on Ukraine’s eastern border that could be planning to head for Moldova’s separatist Transnistria region, 200 miles away.
“There is absolutely sufficient force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Transnistria if the decision was made to do that, and that is very worrisome,” General Breedlove said.
A drive into Transnistria would mark an extraordinary deepening of Russia’s military thrust into former Soviet territory and sharply escalate tensions with the West. Transnistria, a narrow strip of land about the size of Rhode Island that is wedged between the rest of Moldova and southern Ukraine, proclaimed its independence in 1990. Its population went on to vote in 2006 to seek eventual unification with Russia.
Although those moves were not recognized internationally, the region has its own constitution and currency, and pro-Russian sentiment runs high. About 1,200 Russian troops are stationed in the territory — fewer than were in Crimea.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R., N.H.), who is part of a congressional delegation in Kiev on Sunday, said the United States intends to warn Mr. Putin off by providing more help for Ukraine and promising Russia deeper financial pain if it refuses to back off its threatening stance.
No boots on the ground — American or NATO — were being discussed, she said.