KIEV, Ukraine — Ukraine has seized a Russian tanker on the allegation that it aided Russia in a naval clash near the disputed Crimea region last year, Ukraine’s federal security service said Thursday.
The tanker was used to block three Ukrainian naval vessels in the Kerch Strait, a waterway that links the Black Sea with the smaller Sea of Azov, off the coast of Crimea in the Nov. 25 incident, according to the statement.
During the incident, Russia’s coast guard opened fire and seized the Ukrainian ships and their crews totaling 24 Ukrainians, who remain in Russian custody.
Russia annexed neighboring Ukraine’s Crimea region five years ago in retaliation for Ukraine ousting its pro-Russian president in a political pivot toward the West.
The tanker was detained Wednesday at Ukraine’s southwestern port city of Izmail, on the Danube River, near the Black Sea, according to the statement by the Security Service of Ukraine.
The vessel was named Neyma at the time of the incident, and its name was subsequently changed to Nika Spirit to “conceal involvement in the illegal acts,” the statement said.
Local news outlet Timer Odessa reported that the ship had come to port for repair work.
Russian news agency Interfax cited an undisclosed source as saying there were 15 Russian crew members aboard the vessel. A photo released by a senior Ukrainian official showed seven Russian passports.
A statement from the intelligence service later in the day said the crew had been released after questioning as they had not violated Ukrainian law. Investigators were continuing to explore the ship for evidence and would seek a court mandate to impound the ship.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had focused on efforts to return the 24 Ukrainian sailors to their homeland during a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month, the Ukrainian side said.
Speculation had swirled in Russian media that detaining the Russian sailors would undermine Ukraine’s efforts to secure the return of the Ukrainian sailors.
“If this is an issue of Russians being taken hostage, this would be qualified as a gross violation of international law, and the consequences will be immediate,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by state media.
The Russian Embassy in Ukraine later acknowledged that the tanker’s sailors would be allowed to return to Russia. Media reports said they were being returned via Moldova.
“The crew is returning home,” an undisclosed representative of the embassy said in comments carried by Russian state news agency TASS. “The ship will remain in Izmail.”
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