Ukraine's Poroshenko calls for martial law as Russia tension flares

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Monday issued a decree to impose martial law on the country after Russian forces seized three Ukrainian naval vessels and their crews near the disputed Crimea region.

The bill needs parliamentary approval to go into force, with the Supreme Rada due to vote on the issue later on Monday. Martial law would mean, among other things, partial mobilization of the country's military and stepping up air defense — moves that raise fears of a military escalation in the region.

In a televised address, Poroshenko said he had reduced his original call for two months of martial law to 30 days from November 28. The reduction was made in apparent response to opponents who said the initial presidential proposal for 60 days would prevent elections scheduled for March going ahead as expected.

The Ukrainian navy says six of its seamen were injured in the Russian action, during which Russian border guards opened fire on the vessels in the Kerch Strait, a waterway between Russian-annexed Crimea and mainland Russia that flows between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.

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Fraught waterway

The Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov are designated as shared territorial waters by a 2003 treaty, but Russia has asserted more control over the waterways since it annexed Crimea in 2014 in a move that drew widespread condemnation and international sanctions.

In recent weeks, Russia has increased its military presence in the area and started inspecting all vessels traveling to or from Ukrainian ports, causing dayslong delays and disrupting trade.

Ukraine had previous detained a Russian fishing vessel travelling from Crimea in March.

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Prisoners of war?

In the latest incident, both sides have traded accusations of the other's being in breach of international norms, with Moscow saying Kyiv failed to obtain authorization for the passage of its vessels, and Kyiv claiming Moscow had ignored a notification sent by the ships.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said on Monday that the captured seamen should be treated as prisoners of war. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has so far not said whether Moscow will accord them that status.

Tensions between the former Soviet republic of Ukraine and Russia have been growing since 2013, when large-scale protests led to the ousting of pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych. The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and a Moscow-backed insurgency in Ukraine's east have further fanned the flames.

tj/msh (AP, dpa)

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