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Ukraine says Russia ‘partially’ unblocks ports on Sea of Azov

Ukraine military ships on Navy Day. (Ввласенко/Wikimedia Commons)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Ukrainian Infrastructure Minister Volodymyr Omelyan says Russia has “partially” unblocked Ukraine’s sea ports on the Sea of Azov – allowing Ukrainian ships to pass through the Kerch Strait for the first time since November 25, when Russian forces seized three Ukrainian Navy vessels and detained 24 Ukrainian sailors in the area.

“Berdyansk and Mariupol are partially unlocked,” Omelyan said on December 4. “Vessels make their way to the entrance and exit through the Kerch Strait towards Ukrainian ports. The movement is partially restored.”

Omelyan’s remarks came a day after NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg demanded that Russia “allow freedom of navigation and unhindered access to Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov.”

Stoltenberg said Ukrainian military and civilian ships “have the right to navigate through the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov.”

The naval confrontation between Russia and Ukraine was one of the top issues on the agenda of foreign ministers and diplomats from 29 NATO members who are meeting in Brussels on December 4.

Russia continues to hold 24 Ukrainian sailors detained in the November 25 incident, despite demands from NATO for their release from detention centers in Moscow.

Moscow Human Rights Commissioner Tatyana Potyayeva was scheduled on December 4 to visit three Ukrainian sailors who were injured in the November 25 incident, when Russian forces rammed a Ukrainian Navy tugboat and fired on two other ships before seizing the vessels.

The clash has added to tension over Crimea, which Russia occupied and illegally annexed from Ukraine in March 2014.

It also has raised concerns of a possible flare-up in a simmering war between Kyiv and Russia-backed separatists that has killed more than 10,300 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014.

The Russia-backed separatists hold parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces, including a piece of shoreline that lies between the Russian border and the Ukrainian Sea of Azov port city of Mariupol.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov on December 3 said concerns that Moscow could seek to create a “land corridor” linking Russia to Crimea are “absurd.”