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Russia Regrets Sinking Cargo Ship, Blames Captain

Cargo ship New Star floating in the waters of the Pacific ocean of Russia's Far Eastern coast, 18Feb2009

Cargo ship New Star floating in the waters of the Pacific ocean of Russia's Far Eastern coast, 18Feb2009

MOSCOW (Reuters) -- Russia has said it regretted the death of seven Chinese sailors earlier this month after its border guards bombarded and sank a Chinese cargo ship, blaming the incident on the Indonesian crew captain.

China, whose relations with Russia have warmed significantly over the past decade, voiced "strong dissatisfaction" last week over the Russian military's sinking of the ship, the "New Star."

"We deeply regret and offer our condolences with regards to the tragic consequences of these events which led to human deaths," Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement late on February 21.

Chinese newspapers reported last week a Russian warship shot 500 rounds into the "New Star," and China's Foreign Ministry accused Russia of being too slow to rescue the crew members and explaining why it had fired on the ship.

Russia said seven Chinese nationals and one Indonesian died after taking to the freezing waters in an open raft when the ship's captain evacuated the 16 crew members. Border guards rescued five Indonesians and three Chinese from a closed raft.

"The captain acted extremely irresponsibly, deliberately violating the law of the Russian Federation and putting in jeopardy the safety of the crew of the ship under his command," Russia's Foreign Ministry said.

"There is strong evidence that this incident was caused by the actions of the 'New Star's' captain who should bear the entire responsibility for what happened."

The captain has been charged with illegal crossing of Russia's border, an offense punishable by up to two years in jail.

Russian border guards began chasing the "New Star" in turbulent, icy waters after it left the Far Eastern port of Nakhodka on February 12 without getting permission from Russian customs and border guards, Russia's Foreign Ministry said.

It said border guards fired on the "New Star" after it ignored their signals and warning shots for 18 hours.

Russia said the captain told border guards he would return to Nakhodka, but later decided to evacuate his crew, saying the ship's main engine had stopped and the rudder broken.

The Sierra Leone-flagged ship was owned by Hong Kong-registered J-Rui Lucky Shipping Co Ltd.