DHAKA: An Estonian-owned cargo ship sank on Thursday (Mar 3) off Ukraine's major Black Sea port of Odessa, hours after a Bangladeshi vessel was hit by a missile or bomb at another port, underlining the growing peril to merchant shipping following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Many shipping firms have suspended sailings to affected Black Sea ports and other terminals in Ukraine, with insurance premiums for voyages soaring in recent days. At least three commercial ships have been hit by projectiles since Feb 24.
Two crew members from the Marshall Islands-flagged and Estonian-owned Helt cargo ship were in a life raft at sea while four others were unaccounted for, Igor Ilves, managing director of Tallinn-based manager Vista Shipping Agency, told Reuters.
"The vessel has finally sunk," he said. "Two of the crew are in a raft on the water and four others are missing. I don’t know where they are at the moment."
Ilves said that the vessel might have struck a mine.
"It’s a big problem - nobody can help them. The Ukrainians cannot go to sea because it is under Russian control."
Ilves said that the crew comprised four Ukrainian nationals, one Russian and one Belarusian.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Shipping Centre warned on Wednesday that there was "a high risk of collateral damage on civilian shipping in the north-western part of the Black Sea", which included mines.
"There are several open source reports of civilian ships being hit directly or indirectly as a result of the acts of war in the north-western Black Sea within Ukrainian territorial waters and adjacent international waters," NATO said.
"Civilian shipping is encouraged to exercise caution and be on high alert in the area."
Late on Wednesday evening, a missile or bomb struck a Bangladeshi-owned cargo ship in the Black Sea port of Olvia, killing one of its crew members, and efforts were underway to rescue the others from the vessel, its owner said on Thursday.
"The ship came under attack and one engineer was killed," Pijush Dutta, executive director of the Bangladesh Shipping Corporation, told Reuters. "It was not clear whether it was a bomb or missile, or which side launched the attack. The other 28 crewmen are unharmed," he said, without providing further details.
The Bangladesh-flagged Banglar Samriddhi had been stuck at the port of Olvia since Russia's invasion of Ukraine began on Feb 24, and was hit by a missile, a Bangladeshi foreign ministry official said earlier on Thursday.
Olvia is located in the Dnipro-Bug river estuary on the Black Sea coast, 15km south of Mykolaiv and about 110km east of Odessa.
In the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, the Russian embassy said in an English-language statement on its Facebook page that the circumstances of the incident were “being established”.
"We express deep condolences to the near and dear ones of the deceased. The Russian side bends every effort to ensure safe departure of the Bangladeshi ship from the port," it said.
Videos on social media showed crew members asking for help after the ship was hit.
In one video, the vessel's second engineer said that the ship had been hit by a rocket with one crewmate already dead.
"We have no power supply. Emergency generator power supply is running. We are on the verge of death. We have not been rescued yet. Please save us," the seafarer said.
In another video, another crew member called Asiful Islam Asif said: "Please rescue us."
The Bangladesh Shipping Corporation's Dutta said that he was aware of the videos, declining further comment.
Moscow has called its actions in Ukraine a "special military operation" designed not to occupy territory but to destroy Ukraine's military capabilities and capture what it regards as dangerous nationalists - a pretext rejected by Ukraine and the West as baseless propaganda.