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Black Sea Lighthouse Stirs Russia-Ukraine Tension

The lighthouse at the center of the Ukrainian-Russian dispute

The lighthouse at the center of the Ukrainian-Russian dispute

MOSCOW (Reuters) -- Russia has accused Kyiv of attempting to seize property belonging to its Black Sea Fleet in Ukraine, in a further sign of escalating tension between the ex-Soviet neighbors.

Russia's Black Sea Fleet said it had barred Ukrainian court bailiffs as they tried to seize navigation equipment on August 27 at a lighthouse in Khersones, lying on the outskirts of the Ukrainian Crimean port city of Sevastopol, which has been home to the Russian fleet for more than two centuries.

Russian television showed fleet servicemen in full combat gear with submachine guns at the ready forming a chain to guard the territory of the lighthouse. Bailiffs were shown being handed over to Ukraine's police by the Russians.

"The command of the Black Sea Fleet warns that the responsibility for possible tragic consequences of such incidents will rest entirely with those organizing such provocations," the fleet said in a statement posted on the Russian Defense Ministry's website

It said only Russian laws were valid on the territory of Russian Black Sea Fleet facilities, despite it being in Ukraine.

Ukrainian officials could not be immediately reached for comment. Officials in Kyiv had said earlier that despite the fact some facilities like lighthouses are under Russia's jurisdiction Ukraine may claim its rights for them because they are deployed on lands that do not belong to Russia's military.

Brotherly Love

The issue of Sevastopol and Russia's Black Sea Fleet deployed there is a painful irritant in the icy relations between former imperial master Moscow and Kiev which has been seeking closer ties with the West and NATO membership.

In 1954 Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave Russia's Crimean Peninsula to Ukraine in a gesture of "brotherly love." The act had little beyond symbolic importance at the time as Russia and Ukraine formed part of the Soviet Union under Kremlin control.

In line with a 20-year lease agreement between Moscow and Kyiv, the fleet will have to abandon its original base in Sevastopol in 2017. Ukrainian refusal to accept any extension has irked Moscow and pro-Russian locals staunchly oppose it.

Moscow officials have said they hope the rental arrangement can be extended after the expiry of the current deal.