Vladimir Radyuhin

MOSCOW: U.S. Marines who were to prepare for joint American-Ukrainian military exercise in Crimea have begun to leave Ukraine in the face of strong protests from the local population.

The first group of about 150 Marines left the town of Feodosia in Crimea on Sunday, the Itar-Tass news agency reported citing informed military sources.

A spokesman for the Ukrainian Navy confirmed to the AFP news agency that the rest would leave by Monday.

An estimated 250 Marines had arrived in Ukraine on May 28 to refurbish a military training facility in Crimea for the planned joint war games, but had been blockaded by angry demonstrators at a Ukrainian Defence Ministry health resort. Protesters, carrying anti-NATO slogans, also blocked the unloading of U.S. equipment at a Black Sea port in Crimea.

Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko has made NATO membership for Ukraine his top foreign policy priority, but surveys show that just under 20 per cent of Ukrainians favour entering the alliance, while about 60 per cent oppose such a move.

Parliament of Ukraine's pro-Russian Crimean Peninsula last week declared the autonomy a NATO-free territory.