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SIMFEROPOL - A convoy of hundreds of Russian troops was reported to be heading towards the regional capital of Ukraine's Crimea early Sunday, but there were no signs of Kremlin forces in the city.
Twelve military trucks carrying troops, a Tiger vehicle armed with a machine gun and two ambulances were seen by Associated Press journalists on the road heading from Sevastopol - the Crimean port where Russia has its naval base – to Simferopol.
However, there were no signs of any troops in Simferopol, or any crowds in the squares where masked gunmen were seen on Saturday.
That appeared to underline reports that Russia has secured control of Crimea without any signs of military engagement. The Russian move was condemned by Secretary of State John Kerry as an “invasion.”
An expert said Russian troop movements in the region were “not unusual.”
“There's nothing to stop Russia from moving troops around,” said Mark Galeotti, author of “Russian Security and paramilitary Forces Since 1991”. “You have slosh back and forth twice a year because of conscription. The sight of military personnel on the road is not unusual as they move between bases. And obviously they move back and forth to Russia.”
Russian news agency RIA Novosti report that Ukrainian servicemen stationed in Crimea were deserting, handing over weaponry and arsenals to local pro-Russia authorities and militia. That report could not be verified.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has defied calls from the West to pull back his troops, insisting that Russia has a right to protect its interests and the Russian-speaking population in Crimea and elsewhere in Ukraine.
Alastair Jamieson reported from London. The Associated Press contributed to this report.