KYIV, July 25 - Ukraine released 10 Russian sailors after seizing their tanker on Thursday over its suspected involvement in Russia’s capture last year of three Ukrainian naval ships and their 24 crewmen, the Irish Times reported.
Ukraine’s SBU security service published footage showing its officers and military prosecutors in the Danube river port of Izmail boarding the Russian-flagged tanker Nika Spirit, which Kyiv believes figured in last November’s events under the name Neyma.
The SBU said a Ukrainian court sanctioned a search of the tanker “to remove documents from the ship, recordings of radio conversations from the time of the clash and logbooks. Members of the crew were questioned and documents crucial to establishing the truth of the case were removed.”
Russian politicians and diplomats swiftly warned that Ukraine’s actions could further damage relations between the two states, who are now discussing the release of the 24 Ukrainian servicemen as part of a possible prisoner exchange.
“If we are talking about Russians being taken hostage then it will be viewed as the most flagrant breach of international law, and they won’t have to wait long for the consequences,” Russia’s foreign ministry told the Ria news agency.
Within hours Russia’s human rights ombudswoman Tatyana Moskalkova announced that the sailors had crossed the nearby Ukrainian border into Moldova, and would soon return from there to Moscow.
“They were not detained, no procedural complaints were made against them for breaking administrative, criminal or civil law. They checked their passports and put them on a bus,” she said.
The SBU said the ship – which was still in Izmail – was “considered to be a piece of material evidence [and] a petition to a court for its seizure is being prepared”.
An unnamed source in Ukraine’s law enforcement agencies confirmed to the Ukrainska Pravda news outlet that the sailors had been released because there was no evidence that they had been on board the tanker on November 25th, 2018.
On that day, the SBU alleges, the vessel was used to block the mouth of the Kerch Strait to prevent three Ukrainian naval ships sailing from the Black Seato one of country’s ports on the Sea of Azov, which Russia and Ukraine share.
Russian coast guard boats then rammed and fired on the Ukrainian ships before seizing them and their crewmen, at least two of whom were injured in the clash.
All those captured are now on trial in Russia for illegally entering its territorial waters – a charge which they deny.
Kyiv says the sailors are among scores of Ukrainians who are being held illegally in Russia. Talks over their release have intensified in recent weeks, and Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, discussed the issue in a phone call with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin this month. (it/ez)