Russian and Ukrainian troops in natural-gas pumping station standoff

Ukraine's military scrambled aircraft and paratroops to confront 120 Russian troops and six Russian helicopters landing near the Ukraine border.

(AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
A pro-Russian soldier is back dropped by Russia's flag while manning a machine-gun outside an Ukrainian military base in Perevalne, Ukraine, Saturday, March 15, 2014. Tensions are high in the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, where a referendum is to be held Sunday on whether to split off from Ukraine and seek annexation by Russia.

Ukraine's military scrambled aircraft and paratroops to confront Russian troops landing on a remote spit of land between Crimea and the mainland, defense officials said and the foreign ministry demanded their immediate withdrawal.

The border guard service said Ukrainian forces had taken up defensive positions on Arbatskaya Strelka, running parallel to the east of Crimea, now controlled by Russian forces. It said about 60 Russian troops had landed on the strip and begun digging in, assisted by three armored personnel carriers.

Six Russian helicopters arrived with 60 more servicemen about two hours later outside the village of Strelkovoye. The border guard service said talks between the two sides established that the Russian servicemen were "guarding against possible terrorist acts" against a gas pumping station.

"At this time, there is no threat of confrontation," the Ukrainian border guard service said.

Crimea's new pro-Russian government said the region's "self-defense forces" had prevented an attempt to disable the station, which it said had stopped supplying natural gas to hospitals and residential buildings earlier in the day.

In a statement quoted by Russia's Itar-Tass news agency, it said people "in camouflage" had mined the site and fled.

The Ukrainian defense ministry had earlier said troops dispatched to Arbatskaya Strelka had "immediately" repelled the incursion. Strelkovoye is just inside Kherson region on the border with the Crimea region, but about 30 km (20 miles) south of Ukraine's mainland.

Ukraine's foreign ministry said the village had been occupied by Russian forces, though the border guards gave a different version. "The ministry is making public the Russian incursion and demands the immediate withdrawal of Russian armed forces from Ukraine's territory," it said.

Crimea is home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet under a post-Soviet deal signed with Ukraine. The peninsula has been under the control of Russian forces for two weeks.

Two main roads link Crimea to the mainland, at Armyansk in the west and Chonhar in the east. However, there is a third, minor road connection from the 120 km- (75 mile-) long Arbatskaya Strelka.

(Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

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