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Kyiv Says Russia 'Partially' Unblocks Ports On Sea Of Azov


A Ukrainian serviceman stands on board a Coast Guard ship in the Sea of Azov port of Mariupol in eastern Ukraine on December 3.

Kyiv says Russia has "partially" unblocked Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov, allowing Ukrainian ships to pass through the Kerch Strait for the first time since November 25, when Russian forces seized three Ukrainian Navy vessels and detained 24 crewmen.

“Berdyansk and Mariupol are partially unlocked,” Infrastructure Minister Volodymyr Omelyan said on December 4, as NATO reiterated its call on Russia to allow "unhindered access" to Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov.

“Vessels make their way to the entrance and exit through the Kerch Strait toward Ukrainian ports,” Omelyan said.

The minister said that ships navigating through the Kerch Strait to and from Ukrainian ports “are stopped and inspected by Russia as before, but the traffic has been partially restored."

Ukraine's Agriculture Ministry later said that the country had resumed grain shipments from the Sea of Azov.

"Passage of vessels with agricultural products through ports in the Sea of Azov has been unlocked," the ministry said in a statement.

"The loading of grain to vessels through the ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk is restored and carried out in regular mode," it added.

The naval confrontation between Russia and Ukraine topped the agenda of a NATO foreign ministers' meeting with their Ukrainian counterpart, Pavlo Klimkin, in Brussels.

After the talks, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the 29 members of the alliance called on Russia to "immediately release the Ukrainian sailors and ships it seized."

"Russia must allow freedom of navigation and allow unhindered access to Ukrainian ports," he added.

"In response to Russia's aggressive actions, NATO has substantially increased its presence in the Black Sea region over the past few years -- at sea, in the air, and on the ground," Stoltenberg also noted.

Russia continues to hold 24 Ukrainian sailors detained in the November 25 incident, despite demands from NATO for their release from detention centers in Moscow.

Moscow Human Rights Commissioner Tatyana Potyayeva was scheduled on December 4 to visit three Ukrainian sailors who were injured in the November 25 incident, when Russian forces rammed a Ukrainian Navy tugboat and fired on two other ships before seizing the vessels.

The clash has added to tension over Crimea, which Russia occupied and illegally annexed from Ukraine in March 2014.

It also has raised concerns of a possible flare-up in a simmering war between Kyiv and Russia-backed separatists that has killed more than 10,300 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014.

The Russia-backed separatists hold parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, including a piece of shoreline that lies between the Russian border and the Ukrainian Sea of Azov port city of Mariupol.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, on December 3 said concerns that Moscow could seek to create a "land corridor" linking Russia to Crimea were "absurd."

At their Brussels meeting, the foreign ministers "restated NATO’s solidarity with Ukraine," Stoltenberg said.

"We recognize Ukraine’s aspirations to join the alliance, and progress has already been made on reforms. But challenges remain, so we encourage Ukraine to continue on this path of reform. This is crucial for prosperity and peace in Ukraine," the NATO chief said.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP
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