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Russia attacks and seizes Ukrainian naval vessels near Crimea, Ukraine says

Russia attacks and seizes Ukrainian naval vessels near Crimea, Ukraine says
Two Ukrainian navy ships are seen near Crimea on Nov. 25. (Ukrainian Navy Press / Associated Press)

Russia’s coast guard opened fire on and seized three of Ukraine’s vessels Sunday, wounding two crew members, after a tense standoff in the Black Sea near the Crimean Peninsula, the Ukrainian navy said.

Russia blamed Ukraine for provoking the incident, which sharply escalated tensions that have been growing between the two countries since Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

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The Ukrainian navy said two of its gunboats were struck and Russian crews boarded and seized them and an accompanying tugboat.

Russia’s Federal Security Service, which oversees the coast guard, confirmed early Monday that it fired on the vessels to force them to stop, and then seized them.

The European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization called for restraint from both sides and for Moscow to restore access to the narrow Kerch Strait, which Ukraine uses to move ships to and from ports on either side of the peninsula.

The U.S. ambassador to the U.N. said late Sunday that an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council has been called over the escalating situation. Nikki Haley tweeted that a meeting had been called for Monday morning.

Ukrainian authorities said they had given advance notice to the Russians that the vessels would be moving through the strait, which connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov.

Russia said the three Ukrainian vessels made an unauthorized passage through Russian territorial waters, while Ukraine alleged that one of its boats was rammed by a Russian coast guard vessel.

“Russian coast guard vessels ... carried out openly aggressive actions against Ukrainian navy ships,” the Ukrainian statement said.

The Kerch Strait is the only passage into the Sea of Azov. The strait is spanned by the recently completed Kerch Bridge, connecting Crimea to Russia. Transit under the bridge has been blocked by a tanker ship, and dozens of cargo ships awaiting passage are stuck.

Russia has not given any indication of how long it will block the strait, but a long-term closure to would amount to an economic blockade of Ukrainian cities on the Azov coast.

Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov include strategically vital centers such as Mariupol, the closest government-controlled city to Donetsk and Luhansk, the breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russia-backed separatists. Thousands of people in those regions have been killed in fighting between Ukrainian troops and the separatists since 2014.

The Federal Security Service told Russian news agencies after the tugboat incident that the Ukrainian ships violated Russian territorial waters. “Their goal is clear — to create a conflict situation in the region,” the statement said.

Although a 2003 treaty designates the Kerch Strait and Sea of Azov as shared territorial waters, Russia has been asserting greater control over the passage since 2015.

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said earlier that Russia’s actions violated the U.N. Charter and international law, and pledged to “promptly inform our partners about Russia’s aggressive actions.”

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9 p.m.: This article has been updated with a U.N. Security Council emergency meeting being called.

6:55 p.m.: This story was updated with the report that Russia seized three vessels.

12:35 p.m.: This article has been updated with Ukraine’s assertion that Russia fired on and seized two of its naval vessels.

This story was originally published at 8 a.m.

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