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Ukrainian seamen captured by Russia near Crimea to spend two months in custody

Ukrainian police officers stop a car to check documents at the checkpoint in Berdyansk, south coast of Azov sea, eastern Ukraine, Tuesday. Russia and Ukraine traded blame after Russian border guards on Sunday opened fire on three Ukrainian navy vessels and eventually seized them and their crews. The incident put the two countries on war footing and raised international concern. Pictures by Evgeniy Maloletka/AP
Nataliya Vasilyeva

A Crimean court has ordered one of the Ukrainian seamen captured by Russia at the weekend to be held in custody for the next two months.

The seamen and their vessels were captured by Russian border guards late on Sunday as they were about to make their way through the Kerch Strait near Crimea.

Russia said it was a violation of its borders; Ukraine described it as a routine passage.

Russian news agencies reporting from a Crimean court on Tuesday quoted an investigator as saying that the man faces charges of violating the border, which carry up to six years in prison. The Ukrainian was ordered held until January 26.

The Kremlin warned yesterday that the martial law that will go into effect in parts of Ukraine on Wednesday might trigger renewed hostilities in the separatist-held east.

The Ukrainian parliament adopted a motion by the president to impose martial law for 30 days.

That was something that Ukraine avoided doing even when Russia annexed its Crimean peninsula or sent in clandestine troops and weapons to the war-torn east.

The vote followed Sunday's stand-off near Crimea in which Russian border guards rammed into and opened fire on three Ukrainian navy vessels as they were trying to make their way from the Black Sea toward a Ukrainian port.

The Russians seized the ships and their crews, who are expected to face a court later on Tuesday.

Russia and Ukraine traded blame for the confrontation that raised the spectre of a full-blown conflict between the neighbours.

Ukraine said its vessels were heading to the Sea of Azov in line with international maritime rules, while Russia charged that they had failed to obtain permission to pass through the narrow Kerch Strait that is spanned by a bridge that Russia completed this year.

Both countries traded blame after Russian border guards on Sunday opened fire on three Ukrainian navy vessels and eventually seized them and their crews. The incident put the two countries on war footing and raised international concern.

Ukraine's state security service said its intelligence officers were among the crew on the ships.

The SBU agency said in a statement on Tuesday that the officers were fulfilling counterintelligence operations for the Ukrainian navy, in response to "psychological and physical pressure" by Russian spy services.

Russia's FSB intelligence agency said late on Monday that there were SBU officers on board the Ukrainian ships, calling it proof of a "provocation" staged by Ukraine.

Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, warned that the martial law introduced in 10 Ukrainian regions "has the potential" of triggering a flare-up in hostilities in the country's east.

Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine's industrial heartland that borders Russia have been fighting Ukrainian troops since 2014, but the hostilities have largely subsided since a truce was signed in 2015.

Mr Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke on the phone in the early hours on Tuesday, and the Russian president expressed a "serious concern" about what the martial law in Ukraine might entail.

Meanwhile, German foreign minister Heiko Maas said Berlin has "called on Russia and Ukraine to show the greatest possible restraint" and suggested that Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine could work together to resolve the tensions.

Asked about other offers of mediation that were made previously, Mr Peskov said Russia has no need for it because it views the stand-off in the Black Sea as a simple case of a violation of its border.

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