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Ukraine Warns It Will Send Ships Through Kerch Strait Amid Russia Tensions

Kerch Strait bridge in Russia 251118 CREDIT PA-39897114.jpg

The Kerch Strait Bridge (Picture: PA)

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

The announcement could likely increase tensions between Russia and Ukraine.

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.

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Ukrainian troops during a training exercise.

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

Tensions between the two countries have been growing since Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014.

Ukraine has also called up reservists for training.

Speaking in Rome at a ministerial meeting of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov brushed off suggestions Russia could release or exchange the 24 Ukrainian seamen captured in last month's maritime confrontation.

Mr 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.

Mr 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.

Ukraine responded to the seizure of its vessels on November 25 by introducing martial law for 30 days and reinforcing its forces on the border with Russia. 

Russian ombudswoman Tatyana Moskalkova told Russian news agencies that she visited three Ukrainian seamen who were injured in the incident and are being held in a Moscow prison hospital.

Ms Moskalkova said she spoke to the men and "got the impression" that the crew "were not aware that they were committing a crime".

Meanwhile, a court in Crimea on Friday jailed for five days lawyer Emil Kurbedinov, who represents the commander of one of the Ukrainian ships.

The court found Kurbedinov guilty of spreading extremist material in a social media post he made in 2013.