Thursday 13 December 2018

Sailors appear on Russian TV giving 'forced confessions'

Detained crew: A member of Russia’s FSB security service escorts a Ukrainian navy sailor before a court hearing in Crimea. Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images
Detained crew: A member of Russia’s FSB security service escorts a Ukrainian navy sailor before a court hearing in Crimea. Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Alec Luhn in Moscow

Ukrainian sailors were filmed yesterday giving what Kiev said were forced confessions and brought to court after Russia seized their ships off the coast of Crimea in a major escalation of tensions.

A court in Crimea ruled yesterday that 12 of the 24 sailors and security service agents who were captured would be kept in confinement for two months, with a decision on the rest expected today.

Moscow has defied Western calls to release the men, who have been accused of violating Russia's borders and face up to six years in prison. At least three of the men are in hospital.

State television has broadcast footage from the interrogation of three of the captives, including an officer who, while reading from a screen, said the ships had deliberately ignored Russian requests to stop.

The head of the Ukrainian navy said the sailors had been forced to give false testimony, noting that several of the men had relatives in Crimea.

Russian ships rammed a tugboat and opened fire on two gunboats that were trying to reach the Ukrainian port of Mariupol through the Kerch Strait on Sunday.

Vladimir Putin: The Russian president asked for Germany’s help. Photo: Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Vladimir Putin: The Russian president asked for Germany’s help. Photo: Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

The Ukrainian security service said yesterday that a Russian jet had also fired rockets during the incident, seriously injuring one officer. Special forces later boarded the vessels.

Russia has claimed the incident was a planned "provocation", while Ukraine has called it an act of aggression.

Although the Azov Sea is, by a 2003 treaty, supposed to be shared between Ukraine and Russia, the Kerch Strait connecting it to the Black Sea has been controlled by Moscow since it annexed Crimea in 2014.

Russia has been demanding that ships receive permission to pass after it opened a bridge over the strait in May.

In a phone call with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, late on Monday, Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, accused Kiev of "creating yet another conflict situation" before next March's presidential election in Ukraine, according to a Kremlin statement.

Yesterday, Russian state media footage showed anti-ship missiles moving from Sevastopol to the Kerch Strait.

For more than four years, Russia has backed separatists in a conflict in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 10,000 people.

Tensions have also been rising in the Azov Sea as both sides have detained each other's fishing vessels. But Sunday's incident marked the first time Russia has openly attacked Ukrainian forces.

The UK has condemned Russia's "destabilising behaviour in the region and its ongoing violation of Ukrainian territorial integrity".

At an emergency session of the United Nations in New York on Monday, Russia said the Ukrainian vessels deliberately did not wait for permission to pass through the strait, which was temporarily closed.

However, Ukraine said its ships had waited for permission and began withdrawing from the area after they were buzzed by Russian helicopters.

US President Donald Trump said that he did not like what was happening between Russia and Ukraine and was working with European leaders on the situation.

Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, called Russia's seizure of the Ukrainian vessels "a dangerous escalation and a violation of international law" and called for restraint from both countries.

"The United States condemns this aggressive Russian action. We call on Russia to return to Ukraine its vessels and detained crew members, and to respect Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity," he said.

Ms Merkel spoke with Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko by telephone. Her office said the chancellor emphasised the need for de-escalation and dialogue and said she would work to help bring both about.

Several other senior European politicians yesterday raised the possibility of new sanctions against Russia to punish it for capturing three Ukrainian vessels at sea, an incident the West fears could ignite a wider conflict.

A Russian minister said further sanctions would solve nothing and that the incident should not be used to derail the Minsk accord, which aims to end fighting in eastern Ukraine between Kiev's forces and pro-Russian separatist rebels. Russian assets have come under pressure on financial markets amid concerns that possible new sanctions could hurt the economy. (© Daily Telegraph London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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