Russia accused of firing on Ukrainian ship in naval standoff

The Ukrainian navy has accused Russia of firing on and capturing three of its ships near the Kerch Strait, a narrow sea passage near the Crimean peninsula that separates the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.

Two sailors were injured when the Russian ship fired on Ukraine’s vessels, the Ukrainian navy said on Sunday, as tensions increase between the two countries over a standoff that started earlier on Sunday.

In total, three Ukrainian navy vessels were forced to stop and captured by the Russian, a Facebook post by the Ukrainian navy claimed.

“What has happened today basically is a series of escalations, that seems to have culminated in an extended fire,” Al Jazeera correspondent Rory Challands said from Moscow.

The incident came hours after Moscow placed a large cargo ship beneath the 19km-long Crimean Bridge, which connects the Russian-annexed peninsula with its mainland, blocking all traffic into the strait, the only passage into the Sea of Azov.

Both Russia and Ukraine have the right to use the sea, but after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Moscow controls both sides of the strait.

“It’s been a situation that has been getting more and more tense, and the Ukranains before this happened were saying that the Russians stopped access to the Azov sea for three Ukranian naval ships,” Challands said. 

“So this is something that seems to be getting, very volatile.”

The strait is an important trade route for Ukraine as it gives ships access to the city of Mariupol, a key port located in the Sea of Azov.

Several dozen ships were anchored near the strait as they waited for the standoff to be solved, marine traffic tracker website VesselFinder.com showed on Sunday.

Sea traffic was no longer allowed to pass through the Kerch Strait [VesselFinder.com screenshot]

Videos and photos posted on Twitter purportedly showed Russian fighter jets and helicopters flying near the Crimean Bridge.

The tensions began as Russian border guards tried but failed to stop Ukrainian ships – two small armoured artillery vessels and a tugboat – in the Black Sea, accusing them of illegally entering Russian territorial waters. 

While trying to stop the ships, a Russian navy ship rammed the Ukrainian tugboat.

Following the incident, Russia accused Ukraine of “provocative actions” by not informing it in advance of the journey. Moscow alleged that Ukrainian ships had been manoeuvring dangerously and ignoring its instructions with the aim of stirring up tensions.

A statement released by Ukraine’s foreign ministry denied the allegations.

“Russia’s provocative actions in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov have crossed the line and become aggressive,” the statement said.

“Russian ships have violated our freedom of maritime navigation and unlawfully used force against Ukrainian naval ships.”

The rising volatility near the Kerch Strait are the latest in an ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine following the developments in Crimea four years ago.

This annexation followed the overthrow of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich after weeks of protests that descended into a violent conflict.

Later, pro-Russian separatists took over parts of Donbass in southeastern Ukraine.

Since then, fighting in that region has killed more than 13,000 people, including about 3,000 civilians.

SOURCE:
Al Jazeera and news agencies

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