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On the evening of March 15, TIME’s Berlin correspondent, Simon Shuster, walked out of his hotel room in the Crimean capital of Simferopol and came face to face with three men–one wearing a ski mask–carrying automatic rifles fitted with silencers. “They looked like hostage takers or terrorists,” says Simon, who has been covering the crisis in Ukraine for weeks. “They had no insignia.” The men patted him down and told him to sit on a couch and not to take photographs. He did anyway, posting them to Twitter as the occupation of the hotel by two dozen armed men–who may have been members of Russian special forces–continued.