Police stand in front of the Russian Embassy in Kiev, while smoke from a flare is seen during a rally, after an incident in the Black Sea off Moscow-annexed Crimea, in which three Ukrainian naval vessels were seized by a Russian border vessel. Photo: AFP

Russia said Sunday that it had seized three Ukrainian naval vessels in a strait near Moscow-annexed Crimea, alarming Kiev’s Western allies and sparking fears of military escalation.

Ukraine’s navy has accused Russia of firing on its vessels in the Kerch Strait, a narrow waterway that gives access to the Sea of Azov, which is used by both Ukraine and Russia.

“In order to stop the Ukrainian military ships, weapons were used,” Russia’s FSB security service said, confirming that “three Ukrainian navy ships were boarded and searched.”

Ukraine’s navy said the incident took place as two small warships and a tugboat were cruising through the strait to the port of Mariupol.

It said a Russian border guard vessel rammed the tugboat in “openly aggressive actions” and then fired on the ships, immobilizing all three.

It also said the Kerch Strait was blocked by a tanker, and that Russian military aircraft were flying over the area.

Ukraine said six of its soldiers were injured, while the FSB reported only three had suffered non-life threatening injuries and were given medical treatment.

“Having breached this morning the Russian border, the three Ukrainian ships – the Berdyansk, the Nikopol and the Yani Kapu – tried again on November 25 at 19:00 [Moscow time] to conduct illegal actions in Russian territorial waters,” the FSB said.

The FSB, which oversees the border guard service, also said the Ukrainian ships had failed to respond to the “legal demands” of the Russian authorities and that they were aiming “to create a conflict situation in this region.”

West urges restraint

NATO in a statement also urged “restraint and de-escalation,” and called on Russia “to ensure unhindered access to Ukrainian ports in the Azov Sea, in accordance with international law.”

Maja Kocijančič, the EU spokesperson for foreign affairs and security, sad, “We expect Russia to restore freedom of passage at the Kerch Strait and urge all to act with utmost restraint to de-escalate the situation immediately.

“The EU does not and will not recognize the illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia.”

The confrontation at sea is a dangerous development in the long-running conflict pitting Ukraine against Russia and Russian-backed rebels in the east of the country.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said, “Russian special forces have taken over some ships.” He called a meeting of his military cabinet to evaluate and determine his country’s next steps.

– With reporting from Agence France-Presse

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