KIEV (Ukraine) • Kiev and Moscow were facing their worst crisis in years yesterday as Ukraine and its Western allies demanded the release of three ships fired on and seized by Russia near Crimea.
Russian crew boarded and captured the ships on Sunday, accusing them of illegally entering Russian waters off the coast of Crimea in the Sea of Azov.
Ukraine's military was on high alert, and Parliament was slated to vote yesterday on a request by President Petro Poroshenko to impose martial law for 30 days from tomorrow.
Russia's RIA news agency reported that a Ukrainian diplomat was seen entering the Russian Foreign Ministry yesterday, hours after Moscow promised to summon a Ukrainian representative to discuss the incident.
The incident has raised fears of a wider military escalation, and the United Nations Security Council was to hold an emergency session yesterday. Nato also called an emergency meeting on the incident.
Ukraine's Western allies accused Russia of using force without justification, while Kiev urged its partners to impose more sanctions on Moscow.
"These were planned acts of aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine," Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said in Kiev. "We will demand (at the Security Council) the immediate release of our sailors and the liberation of our ships."
He said talks were under way with the European Union and others on increasing sanctions imposed on Russia.
Moscow insisted Kiev was to blame, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying: "The Russian side acted strictly within both domestic and international law."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused Kiev of a planned provocation and of using "dangerous methods" that put ships in the area at risk.
The crisis unfolded as two small Ukrainian warships and a tugboat were heading through the Kerch Strait, a waterway that gives access to the Sea of Azov from the Black Sea and which is used by both Ukraine and Russia.
Ukraine said a Russian border guard vessel rammed the tugboat and then fired on the ships, immobilising all three. It said the Kerch Strait was blocked by a tanker and that Russian military aircraft were flying over the area.
Russia's FSB security service, which oversees border forces, confirmed weapons had been fired and the vessels seized, accusing the Ukrainian ships of "violating the Russian border".
Ukraine said six of its servicemen were injured, two seriously. The FSB said only three suffered non-life threatening injuries and were given medical treatment.
Russian news agencies quoted port officials in Crimea as saying the strait was reopened to traffic early yesterday.
The confrontation is a dangerous development in the long-running conflict pitting Ukraine against Moscow and Russian-backed rebels in the east of the country.
Tensions have been building over the Kerch Strait, where Russia has built a new bridge that gives it a land connection to Crimea, annexed by Moscow in 2014.
Kiev has accused Moscow of blocking access for Ukrainian ships through the strait, the only way in and out of the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea. In recent months, both sides have deployed more naval and border vessels to the area.
Protesters gathered in several Ukrainian cities to denounce Russia's actions, with several hundred far-right activists marching to Parliament in Kiev and setting off flares.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS