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Ukrainian troops dig in near Russian border

Source: Reuters - Thu, 20 Mar 2014 19:12 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Paratroopers set up camp and defences 30 km from border

* Ukrainian army greatly outgunned ad outnumbered

* Local people bring food and sympathy

By Alastair Macdonald

NEAR ANDRIIVKA, Ukraine, March 20 (Reuters) - Ukrainian paratroopers with armoured vehicles were digging in on Thursday near the Russian border as the military demonstrated its presence in the east following Kiev's loss of Crimea to Moscow's forces.

The soldiers, camped in tents with some two dozen trucks and BMD-1 combat vehicles, would not discuss their mission. They set up sandbags, strung barbed wire and carried out infantry drills in small groups next to a small quarry in rolling grain country, 30 km (20 miles) from the Russian border in Donetsk region.

Ukraine's government has put its heavily outnumbered and outgunned forces on alert for an invasion from Russia in the east following Moscow's seizure of the Black Sea peninsula. But there is little evidence of a major Ukrainian troop build-up.

The isolated unit near the village of Andriivka, close to a major highway, would stand little chance of resisting a major assault backed by air power, though the paratroopers put on a determined face as they set up their position. "I think things will be all right in the end," said one soldier on guard duty.

The vehicles of the 25th Dnepropetrovsk Parachute Brigade, equipped with relatively light 73-mm guns, are of a type not produced since 1987, four years before the Soviet collapse.

As its troops confront besieged Ukrainian forces in military and naval bases in Crimea, the Kremlin has said it has no designs on other regions of its former Soviet neighbour. But it has said it is ready to "protect" ethnic Russians in eastern cities like Donetsk, where there has been violent unrest.

LOCAL SUPPORT

Local residents in the largely Russian-speaking Donetsk region showed their solidarity with their Ukrainian troops by driving up with gifts of food, medicine and other supplies to the camp. "They're just children, these soldiers," said one local man, Dmitry, after handing over a bag of groceries.

"My son's been in the army. They freeze in those tents."

Like many in the region, which is also home to coalmines and heavy industry, he was favourable to a Crimea-style takeover of eastern Ukraine by President Vladimir Putin. "We would be better with Russia," he said. "But who knows what will happen next?"

Another well-wisher, Tatyana, 50, was staunchly Ukrainian and choked back tears for the troops' predicament.

"These are Ukrainian soldiers, our soldiers and it's a shame. Every mother wants to protect them," she said. "Our high ups are fighting over big jobs and our kids are suffering."

Lyudmila Chebotareva, 56, a nurse in a nearby village, brought medicines and honey. She said these were trying times for locals, who all had friends and relatives over the border:

"All this war and military action - what good does it do?" the former military medic asked. "This fertile land shouldn't be getting ploughed up by tanks but by tractors, ready for sowing.

"We watch TV and everyone cries because we're all mothers ... What's the point of all this? I just want to be on my own land, Ukrainian land. Russians are welcome to visit." (Reporting by Alastair Macdonald; editing by Andrew Roche)

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