Ukraine seizes Russian tanker 'used in act of aggression'

Ukraine seizes Russian tanker 'used in act of aggression'

Development raises stakes in eight-month standoff between Kiev and Moscow, and fate of 24 captured servicemen

Kiev's security agency, the SBU, has detained a Russian tanker it says was used to block off the Kerch Strait in November’s naval clashes between Russia and Ukraine. 

In a press release, the agency claimed the "Neyma" was used by Russian security services to commit an “act of aggression” against Ukraine. The SBU said that they had become aware that the ship arrived in Izmail, a Ukrainian port near Odessa, on Wednesday. In the months following the Kerch incident, the "Neyma" was renamed ​"Nika Spirit." Border officials were able to identify the ship by matching registration numbers on an international database.

According to unconfirmed reports, approximately 15 Russian crew were detained along with the vessel. Kiev says that it has seized documents, radio conversations and logbooks from the ship, and will now seek a court order to hold the vessel in its custody. Ukrainian state prosecutors declined to comment as the prospects of the crew's release. Moscow has already reacted angrily to the news, predicting "immediate consequences" in response to the "kidnapping of Russians."

"This will be interpreted as the most flagrant violation of international law," a press officer for the Russian foreign ministry said. 

A then-unidentified tanker played a prominent role in the November sea clashes, blocking off access to the Kerch Strait that provides access to Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov. 

Moscow disputes Ukraine’s version of events: that three of its boats were attacked for no reason after they were denied access to the Strait. It says the Ukrainian servicemen violated its territorial waters and refused to obey orders. Recordings of the interception suggested an anything but ordinary interception: Ukrainian servicemen are heard desperately radioing for help, before Russian forces open fire.

Thursday's news raise the stakes in the eight-month standoff, as well as the prospects for the 24 Ukrainian servicemen who were seized by Russia during those clashes. 

In May, an international UN tribunal ordered the release of the men. So far Moscow has refused to comply, and last week extended custody of the men for a further three months. That decision went against hopes the Kremlin was close to agreeing an exchange deal with Ukraine's new leader, Volodymyr Zelensky. 

Vladimir Dzabarov, deputy chair of the foreign affairs committee of Russia's upper house, said the development would now complicate the process of securing the men's release. Speaking to the Interfax news agency, he described the move as a "provocation" by the outgoing government. 

"They want to screw the new president over," he said.

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