Ukraine to send more naval ships

San Francisco Chronicle - - WORLD - By Yuras Karmanau and Nataliya Vasi­lyeva Yuras Karmanau and Nataliya Vasi­lyeva are As­so­ci­ated Press writ­ers.

MINSK, Be­larus — Ukraine’s de­fense min­istry warned Rus­sia on Fri­day that it will soon send navy ships through the Kerch Strait where Rus­sia fired on and seized three Ukrainian ves­sels two weeks ago.

The an­nounce­ment sets up an­other pos­si­ble flash point in the longsim­mer­ing con­flict be­tween Rus­sia and Ukraine that erupted in 2014 with Rus­sia’s an­nex­a­tion of the Crimean penin­sula burst into the open on Nov. 25 when Rus­sian border guards opened fire on three Ukrainian navy ves­sels that were mov­ing through the Kerch Strait near Crimea and seized the ships and their crews.

Ukraine re­sponded by in­tro­duc­ing martial law for 30 days, a mea­sure Kiev did not take even af­ter Crimea’s an­nex­a­tion and amid largescale fight­ing be­tween Ukrainian forces and Rus­sia-backed sep­a­ratists in 2014-2015.

As part of martial law, Ukraine has beefed up its forces on the border with Rus­sia and called up re­servists for train­ing.

Ukrainian De­fense Minister Stepan Poltorak told re­porters on Fri­day that his coun­try in­tends to send naval ships through the Kerch Strait soon, say­ing that “other­wise Rus­sia will fully oc­cupy the Sea of Azov.”

Ukraine has ports both on the Black Sea and on the Sea of Azov that are linked by the Kerch Strait, which sep­a­rates Crimea from Rus­sia.

More than 140 ships were stuck on both sides of the strait on Fri­day due to ex­ces­sive checks and delays on the Rus­sian side, the Ukrainian Border Guard Ser­vice said, ac­cus­ing Rus­sia of cre­at­ing a bot­tle­neck for Ukrainian ships and pre­vent­ing them from pass­ing.

Speak­ing in Rome at a min­is­te­rial meet­ing of the Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Se­cu­rity and Co­op­er­a­tion in Europe, Rus­sian For­eign Minister Sergei Lavrov brushed off sug­ges­tions Rus­sia could re­lease or ex­change the 24 Ukrainian sea­men cap­tured in last month’s mar­itime con­fronta­tion. Lavrov said it was too early to speak about any of­fers of a pris­oner swap un­til Rus­sia’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the in­ci­dent is com­pleted and the ser­vice­men are put on trial for vi­o­lat­ing the Rus­sian border.

Lavrov also re­acted to a sug­ges­tion by Ger­man For­eign Minister Heiko Maas to ex­pand the OSCE mon­i­tor­ing mis­sion to the Sea of Azov, say­ing that Rus­sia “has no need” for any in­ter­me­di­aries or mon­i­tors in the area.

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