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Russia ‘partially unblocks’ Ukraine ports
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Russia ‘partially unblocks’ Ukraine ports 

Ships have begun heading through the Kerch Strait again towards two key Ukrainian ports, a Ukrainian minister has said, nine days after Russia opened fire on three boats.

Mariupol and Berdyansk were “partially unblocked”, said Volodymyr Omelyan.

Russia seized 24 Ukrainian sailors on 25 November in the first open clash between the two states since 2014.

The Ukrainians had initially headed towards Mariupol and were targeted in international waters.

How did crisis erupt?

Before the clash in the Black Sea, the government in Kiev had accused Russia of stopping cargo ships going to and from the two ports, which are in the Sea of Azov, shared by both states.

Earlier this year the Russian government opened a bridge across the Kerch Strait to Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014 and then annexed.

The Russians began inspecting ships and the Ukrainians accused them of imposing an economic blockade. After the clash, Kiev said no Ukrainian ships were allowed through.

Mr Omelyan, Ukraine’s infrastructure minister, said on Tuesday that ships were “navigating through the Kerch Strait to and from Ukrainian ports”. “They are stopped and inspected by Russia as before, but the traffic has been partially restored.”

What does Russian move mean?

Legally a complete blockade on ships using Ukrainian ports was impossible to justify. So Russia appears to have gone back to the system it had in place before the Black Sea clash of 25 November.

It’s what one Ukrainian official calls a “quiet” blockade.

That means some ships doing business with Ukraine are allowed through, but they face lengthy delays at the entrance to the strait.

Cargo traffic to and from Berdyansk has been reduced dramatically in recent weeksCargo traffic to and from Berdyansk has been reduced dramatically in recent weeks

Time is money for shipping companies, and an extra day at sea can cost up to $15,000 (£11,600; €13,150). So, visiting a Ukrainian Azov port remains a risky and potentially expensive undertaking.

It’s unclear what would happen if Ukraine attempted to send its naval vessels through the strait again.

Map of flare-up in Black Sea

The Ukrainian minister said that 17 ships were queuing to enter the Sea of Azov and one was set to leave, while another nine ships were still in port.

There was no word from Russia about the movement of shipping through the strait. However, the development came as Nato foreign ministers met in Brussels to discuss the latest flare-up.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian media said violence had continued in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists seized areas of two border regions in 2014.

A Ukrainian soldier was killed in shelling in the Luhansk area on Monday, Interfax reported.

By Jonah Fisher, BBC Kiev correspondent

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