Russia's navy chief on Saturday insisted that Ukraine return a lighthouse that Moscow says was seized illegally from the Russian Black Sea Fleet, in comments quoted by the Interfax news agency, fueling fresh tension after the two countries' recent gas conflict. Employees of Ukraine's state hydrography company entered the lighthouse in the Crimean city of Yalta on Friday and barred their Russian counterparts from access to the site according to Russian officials.
"The Russian navy command's position is firm: the Yalta lighthouse must be reincorporated into the Black Sea Fleet's hydrographic service and function properly to ensure safe navigation in the Black Sea region," Adm. Vladimir Masorin was quoted as saying by Interfax. Russian navy officials have denounced the Ukrainian actions as an "unlawful" violation of a bilateral agreement that allowed the Black Sea Fleet to use Ukraine's facilities.
But authorities in Kiev insists the lighthouse is Ukrainian property and say the Ukrainian employees are providing "technical assistance" at the site. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said Friday that Moscow has demanded that Ukrainian officials provide an explanation and take "immediate" measures to allow Russian fleet personnel to perform their duties.
The incident "cannot fail to cloud the atmosphere of Russian-Ukrainian relations," Kamynin said in a statement, adding that two Russian diplomats had been sent to Yalta to look into the situation. After years of bitter arguments, Russia and Ukraine signed a 1997 agreement on the division of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet that allowed the Russian navy to remain in the Crimean port of Sevastopol until 2017.
During a recent fierce dispute over the price for Russian natural gas supplied to Ukraine, Ukrainian officials said they could consider raising the US$93 million (Ђ77 million) annual rent Moscow pays for the use of Sevastopol. Ties between Moscow and Kiev have been increasingly tense since pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko came to power last year and launched a drive to shake off Russian influence in the former Soviet republic and integrate with western Europe, reports the AP. N.U.