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Court orders captured Ukrainian sailors held for two months

Court orders captured Ukrainian sailors held for two months

A Russian FSB security service officer escorts a detained Ukrainian sailor to a courthouse in Simferopol, Crimea. (STR/AFP)

SIMFEROPOL: A court in Crimea on Tuesday (Nov 27) ordered two months' detention for Ukrainian sailors captured in a confrontation at sea with Russia, in a move likely to further stoke tensions between Moscow and Kiev.

The 24 sailors have been held by Moscow since Sunday, after Russian forces seized three of Kiev's ships off the coast of Crimea, sparking the most dangerous crisis between the ex-Soviet neighbours in years.

READ: Russia confirms seizing three Ukrainian naval ships off Crimea

Russia has resisted calls to let them go, accusing the sailors of crossing illegally into Russian waters and of ignoring warnings from its border guards.

On Tuesday, a court in Simferopol, the main city in Russian-annexed Crimea, ordered 12 of the sailors to be held in pre-trial detention for two months. The others are to appear before the court on Wednesday.

The detentions angered Kiev, which has demanded the release of the sailors and urged Western allies to impose further sanctions on Moscow.

"We don't agree with such a decision, we consider it baseless and unlawful," Aider Azamatov, the lawyer for one of the sailors, said outside court, adding that there would be an appeal within three days.

PUTIN WARNS OF 'RECKLESS ACTS'

The incident was the first major confrontation at sea in the long-running conflict pitting Ukraine against Moscow and Russian-backed separatists in the country's east.

It has raised fears of a wider escalation - in a conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people since 2014 - and prompted international calls for restraint.

President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday warned Ukraine against any "reckless acts" after Kiev declared martial law in response to Moscow's seizure of the three navy vessels.

The Ukrainian parliament late on Monday voted in favour of President Petro Poroshenko's request for the introduction of martial law in border areas for 30 days.

This gives Ukrainian authorities the power to mobilise citizens with military experience, regulate the media and restrict public rallies in affected areas.

In a phone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday, Putin expressed "serious concern" over its introduction.

He said he hoped Berlin could intervene with Ukrainian authorities "to dissuade them from further reckless acts".

Moscow has accused Kiev of planning Sunday's confrontation as a provocation aimed at drumming up support for Poroshenko ahead of elections next year and convincing Western governments to impose further sanctions on Russia.

Putin said Kiev's actions were "clearly taken in view of the election campaign in Ukraine".

Sunday's incident has been playing out on Russian and Ukrainian television screens, with dramatic footage of Russian ships chasing down a Ukrainian tugboat that was trying to pass through the Kerch Strait from the Black Sea into the Sea of Azov.

SAILORS ON RUSSIAN TV

Russian state television late on Monday aired footage of some of the captured sailors being questioned by Moscow's security services.

One of them is heard saying "the actions of the Ukrainian armed vessels in the Kerch Strait had a provocatory character" - parroting the version of events put forward by Russian authorities.

Ukraine's naval commander, Igor Voronchenko, said the sailors were pressured into giving false evidence.

"I know these sailors, they were always professional. What they are saying now is not true," he told Ukrainian media.

"They (the Russians) could even say that we came from the sky on a spaceship."

Western governments have rallied behind Kiev in the dispute, accusing Russia of illegally blocking access to the Sea of Azov and of taking military action without justification.

The European Union, Britain, Canada, France, Germany and others expressed support for Kiev on Monday, in statements pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia denounced as "predictably anti-Russian".

The foreign minister of Austria, which holds the rotating EU presidency, said on Tuesday that the bloc will next month consider further sanctions against Moscow over the flare-up.

"Everything depends on the accounts of events and the actions of both sides. But it will need to be reviewed," Karin Kneissl told reporters.

UN chief Antonio Guterres on Tuesday called for "maximum restraint," urging both sides "to take steps without delay to contain this incident and reduce tensions".

Source: AFP/de

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