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Britain Denies Russia Fired Warning Shots At Warship In Black Sea

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The HMS Defender is seen off the coast of Scotland in May 2019.

The United Kingdom has denied reports that a Russian vessel fired warning shots at a British Navy ship in the Black Sea, attributing the incident to a preannounced military exercise.

The Russian Defense Ministry on June 23 said a patrol ship fired warning shots at a British warship in response to an alleged violation of its territorial waters near Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized in 2014.

The ministry said a Su-24 aircraft also dropped four bombs near the Royal Navy's HMS Defender destroyer.

But Britain denied the Defender had been fired upon or that it was in Russian waters.

"No warning shots have been fired at HMS Defender. The Royal Navy ship is conducting innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters in accordance with international law," the ministry said.

The ministry said it believed Russia was carrying out "gunnery exercise in the Black Sea and provided the maritime community with prior warning of their activity."

Russia's official TASS news agency reported the incident took place after the HMS Defender allegedly crossed 3 kilometers into territory in the Black Sea that Russia considers its own.

No casualties were reported in the incident.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said it would summon the British ambassador to Moscow to protest "a crude provocation."

Moscow forcibly seized Crimea in 2014 and threw its support behind pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine's eastern region of Donbas, where more than 13,200 people have been killed in a conflict that continues to this day.

Russia massed troops on its border with Ukraine and in Crimea in the spring, causing consternation in Washington and European capitals about Moscow's intentions at a time of increased fighting in eastern Ukraine between Kyiv and Kremlin-backed separatists.

Russia said in April that it intended to reduce the more than 100,000 troops it had moved near the border areas, but U.S. and Ukrainian officials say Russia has left some military hardware in place.

At the time, Russia announced plans to conduct six months of naval exercises and threatened to block maritime traffic off the Crimean Peninsula, potentially preventing access to Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov, which is connected to the Black Sea through the Kerch Strait.

NATO and Ukraine condemned the threat as a violation of international maritime law and Ukraine's sovereignty.

"By international law, of course, the waters off Crimea are not Russian, as the annexation is not recognized," Mark Galeotti, a professor of Russian studies at University College London, tweeted on June 23.

"Continuing to pass those waters -- without being too provocative -- is a crucial way of reaffirming law over land and sea grab."

Western countries have imposed sanctions on Russia over the seizure of Crimea, the treatment of jailed opposition activist Aleksei Navalny, election interference and cyberattacks on U.S. infrastructure blamed on Russian hackers.

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