Move seems to be retaliation for Russian seizure of three Ukrainian vessels last year

Ukrainian authorities have seized a Russian tanker moored in a river port near the Black Sea in apparent retaliation for Russias seizure of three Ukrainian vessels and arrest of 24 sailors in November last year.

Ukraines SBU security service said in a Facebook post on Thursday it had seized the Russian tanker Nika Spirit in Izmail, a port on the Danube River near the countrys border with Romania.

The SBU said it had seized documents from the ship and questioned its crew. It also released a video showing its officers and those from the military prosecutors office boarding the vessel.

The Russian foreign ministry threatened a swift retaliation if arrests were made, but later a spokesman for the Russian embassy in Kyiv told news agencies that while the vessel remained impounded, the crew were on their way back to Russia.

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Earlier, the Russian agency Interfax, citing an unnamed source, said there were about 15 sailors onboard the ship, all believed to be Russian citizens. Ukrainian prosecutors said about 10 crew members had been questioned.

The SBU said the vessel had previously been called Neyma and had taken part in blocking the three Ukrainian ships in the Kerch strait last year, with the owners apparently changing its name to Nika Spirit to avoid detection.

Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and has built a bridge over the Kerch strait, which separates the peninsula from Russia. Ukrainian ships have to pass through the strait to exit the Sea of Azov. The 24 sailors seized during the November incident in the strait have been held in Russian prisons since.

Moscow accused the ships of illegally entering Russian territorial waters, which Kyiv has denied. The Hamburg-based International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea has condemned Moscow over the incident and said it should release the sailors.

The newly elected Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said bringing the sailors home was a priority, and the move to seize the Russian vessel came after the comedian-turned-president won an overwhelming victory in parliamentary elections over the weekend.

Zelenskiy spoke to Russias president, Vladimir Putin, by telephone for the first time last week and discussed a possible prisoner exchange, and there was a sense that there could be a deal soon involving the 24 sailors. However, a Moscow court ruled that the sailors should stay in custody for a further three months, and Thursdays move threatens to inflame tensions further.

The head of the Russian parliaments international affairs committee, Leonid Slutsky, on Thursday branded Ukraines move against the Russian tanker state-sponsored piracy and said it was unlawful and illicit pressure on the investigation into the Ukrainian sailors seized by Russia.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

 

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