Moscow, Nov 28 (AP/UNB) — A military official says Russia will boost the defense of the occupied Crimean peninsula with more anti-aircraft missiles.
The Interfax news agency on Wednesday quoted Col. Vadim Astafyev, the top Defense Ministry official in Russia's south, as saying that Russia will add one S-400 anti-aircraft missile system to the three already deployed in the peninsula.
The announcement comes three days after Russian border guards fired on three Ukrainian vessels and seized them and their crews. The first overt military confrontation between the two neighboring countries has raised the specter of a major conflict.
Ukraine said its vessels were operating in line with international maritime rules, while Russia alleged they had failed to get permission to pass.
Kiev, Nov 27 (AP/UNB) — Ukraine's parliament voted Monday to impose martial law in parts of the country to fight what its president called "growing aggression" from Moscow after a weekend naval confrontation off the disputed Crimean Peninsula in which Russia fired on and seized three Ukrainian vessels amid renewed tensions between the neighbors.
Western leaders and diplomats urged both sides to de-escalate the conflict, and the U.S. blamed Russia for what it called "unlawful conduct" over Sunday's incident in the Black Sea.
Russia and Ukraine blamed each other in the dispute that further ratcheted up tensions ever since Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014 and threw its weight behind separatists in eastern Ukraine with clandestine support, including troops and weapons.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko asked lawmakers in Kiev to institute martial law, something the country did not do even during the worst of the fighting in the east that killed about 10,000 people.
After a five-hour debate, parliament overwhelmingly approved his proposal, voting to impose martial law for 30 days starting Wednesday morning in 10 of Ukraine's 27 regions — those bordering Russia, Belarus and Moldova's pro-Moscow breakaway republic of Trans-Dniester. The locations chosen were ones that Poroshenko identified as potentially in the front line of any Russian attack. The capital of Kiev is not under martial law.
Poroshenko said it was necessary because of intelligence about "a highly serious threat of a ground operation against Ukraine." He did not elaborate.
"Martial law doesn't mean declaring a war," he said. "It is introduced with the sole purpose of boosting Ukraine's defense in the light of a growing aggression from Russia."
Ukraine's Defense Ministry already announced earlier in the day that its troops were on full combat alert in the country.
The approved measures included a partial mobilization and strengthening of air defenses. It also contained vaguely worded steps such as "strengthening" anti-terrorism measures and "information security" that could curtail certain rights and freedoms.
But Poroshenko also pledged to respect the rights of Ukrainian citizens.
His critics reacted to his call for martial law with suspicion, wondering why Sunday's incident merited such a response. Poroshenko's approval ratings have been plunging, and there were concerns that he would postpone a presidential election scheduled for March.
Just before the parliament met to vote, Poroshenko sought to allay those fears by releasing a statement revising his original martial law proposal from 60 days to just 30 days, in order to "do away with the pretexts for political speculation."
Oksana Syroid, a deputy speaker of parliament, noted that martial law was not introduced in 2014 or 2015 despite large-scale fighting in the east. A state of emergency "would present a wonderful chance to manipulate the presidential elections," she said.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Poroshenko assured him that martial law would not have a negative impact on the election.
Despite Poroshenko's vow to respect individual rights, opposition lawmaker and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko warned before the vote that his proposal would lead to the possible illegal searches, invasion of privacy and curtailing of free speech.
"This means they will be breaking into the houses of Ukrainians and not those of the aggressor nation," noted Tymoshenko, who is leading in various opinion polls. "They will be prying into personal mail, family affairs ... In fact, everything that is written here is a destruction of the lives of Ukrainians."
Poroshenko's call also outraged far-right groups in Ukraine that have advocated severing diplomatic ties with Russia. Hundreds of protesters from the National Corps party waved flares in the snowy streets of Kiev outside parliament and accused the president of using martial law to his own ends.
But Poroshenko insisted it was necessary because what happened in the Kerch Strait between Crimea and the Russian mainland "was no accident," adding that "this was not the culmination of it yet."
Russian coast guard ships fired on the Ukrainian navy vessels near the strait, which separates the Black Sea from the Sea of Azov, injuring six Ukrainian seamen and eventually seizing the vessels and their crews. It was the first open military confrontation between the two neighbors since the annexation of Crimea.
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 strait that is spanned by a 19-kilometer (11.8-mile) bridge that Russia completed this year.
While a 2003 treaty designates the Kerch Strait and Sea of Azov as shared territorial waters, Russia has sought to assert greater control over the passage since the annexation.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin tweeted that the dispute was not an accident and that Russia had engaged in "deliberately planned hostilities," while Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov blamed Kiev for what he described as a "provocation," adding that "Ukraine had undoubtedly hoped to get additional benefits from the situation, expecting the U.S. and Europe to blindly take the provocateurs' side."
Klimkin told reporters in Kiev that the government is in talks with the Red Cross to make sure the captive seamen are treated as prisoners of war. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov did not say whether the Kremlin considers them prisoners of war.
At a U.N. Security Council meeting, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley urged Russia to "immediately cease its unlawful conduct" in the Black Sea.
In his first public remarks since the confrontation, President Donald Trump did not specifically call out Russia's behavior.
"We do not like what's happening, either way, we don't like what's happening and hopefully it will get straightened out," Trump said.
Anne Gueguen, the French deputy permanent representative at the U.N., urged the release of the sailors and the vessels.
But Russia called Ukraine's actions "dangerous." Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russia's first deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, told the Security Council the incident was another example of Ukrainian leaders trying to provoke Russia for political purposes.
The European Union and NATO called for restraint from both sides. NATO said Stoltenberg expressed the U.S.-led military alliance's "full support for Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty, including its full navigational rights in its territorial waters under international law."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also spoke by telephone with Poroshenko to express her concerns and emphasize the need for de-escalation and dialogue, her office said.
British Prime Minister Theresa May's spokesman, James Slack, said the incident was "further evidence of Russia's destabilizing behavior in the region and its ongoing violation of Ukrainian territorial integrity."
Paris, Nov 26 (AP/UNB) — The pressure is on French President Emmanuel Macron after a second weekend of sometimes violent protests over rising fuel taxes that reached the heart of Paris.
Scattered protests continued Monday as drivers blocked roads from the Pyrenees to Brittany.
Macron promised to explain on Tuesday his plans for weaning France off fossil fuels, the reason for the small tax hikes.
The protests are a major challenge for Macron, drawing disparate demonstrators with no clear leader or mission. Tense clashes Saturday reached Paris' high-end Champs-Elysees.
A local protest leader in Toulouse, Benjamin Cauchy, said Monday on BFM television that the movement is at a turning point and the next step will hinge on what Macron has to say.
Cauchy said protesters should respect the media, after journalists were attacked, chased or threatened while covering Saturday's events.
Wellington, Nov 26 (AP/UNB) — All of the 145 pilot whales that stranded themselves on a remote New Zealand beach have died.
However, conservation workers are hoping to save some of the eight pygmy killer whales that remained stranded Monday at the other end of the country in an unrelated event.
A hiker discovered the pilot whales in two pods about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) apart late Saturday on Stewart Island. About 75 were already dead and conservation workers decided to euthanize the others due to their poor condition and remote location.
Only about 375 people live on Stewart Island, which is also called Rakiura. The whales were found at Mason's Bay about 35 kilometers (22 miles) from the main township of Oban.
"You feel for the animals, it's just a really sad event," said Ren Leppens, the Rakiura operations manager for the Department of Conservation. "It's the kind of thing you don't want to see. You wish you could understand the reasoning why the whales strand better, so you could intervene."
Leppens said the whales were half buried in sand and not in good health, indicating they had been there for perhaps a day before they were found. He said staff shot the whales and the carcasses would be left where they were for nature to take its course.
Meanwhile, on Sunday, 10 pygmy killer whales were found stranded at Ninety Mile Beach on the North Island. Two have since died, and staff plan to try and refloat the remaining eight.
Whale strandings are relatively common in New Zealand during the Southern Hemisphere spring and summer. It's believed strandings can be caused by a number of factors, such as the whales trying to escape predators, falling ill, or navigating incorrectly.
Moscow, Nov 26 (AP/UNB) — Russia's coast guard opened fire on and seized three of Ukraine's vessels Sunday, wounding two crew members, after a tense standoff in the Black Sea near the Crimean Peninsula, the Ukrainian navy said.
Russia blamed Ukraine for provoking the incident, which sharply escalated tensions that have been growing between the two countries since Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and it has worked steadily to bolster its zone of control around the peninsula.
Earlier in the day, Russia and Ukraine traded accusations over a separate incident involving the same vessels, prompting Moscow to block passage through the narrow Kerch Strait, which separates the peninsula from the Russian mainland.
The Ukrainian navy said two of its gunboats were struck and Russian crews boarded and seized them and an accompanying tugboat.
Russia's Federal Security Service, known as the FSB and which oversees the coast guard, said there was "irrefutable evidence that Kiev prepared and orchestrated provocations ... in the Black Sea. These materials will soon be made public."
The FSB confirmed early Monday that it fired on the vessels to force them to stop, and then seized them.
An emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council was called for Monday morning over the escalating situation, according to U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley. The European Union and NATO called for restraint from both sides and for Moscow to restore access to the strait, which Ukraine uses to move ships to and from ports on either side of the peninsula.
Ukrainian authorities said they had given advance notice to the Russians that the vessels would be moving through the strait, which connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov.
Russia said the three Ukrainian vessels made an unauthorized passage through Russian territorial waters, while Ukraine alleged that one of its boats was rammed by a Russian coast guard vessel.
The tugboat, which was rammed, was traveling with the two Ukrainian gunboats from Odessa on the Black Sea to Mariupol, an eastern Ukraine port, via the Kerch Strait.
"Russian coast guard vessels ... carried out openly aggressive actions against Ukrainian navy ships," the Ukrainian statement said, with the tugboat suffering damage to its engine, hull, side railing and a lifeboat.
The Kerch Strait is the only passage into the Sea of Azov. The strait is spanned by the recently completed Kerch Bridge, connecting Crimea to Russia. Transit under the bridge has been blocked by a tanker ship, and dozens of cargo ships awaiting passage are stuck.
Russia has not given any indication of how long it will block the strait, but a long-term closure to would amount to an economic blockade of Ukrainian cities on the Azov coast. Russia's Black Sea Fleet greatly outmatches the Ukrainian navy.
Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov include strategically vital centers such as Mariupol, the closest government-controlled city to Donetsk and Luhansk, the breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russia-backed separatists. Thousands of people in those regions have been killed in fighting between Ukrainian troops and the separatists since 2014.
The FSB told Russian news agencies after the first incident that the Ukrainian ships held their course and violated Russian territorial waters.
"Their goal is clear — to create a conflict situation in the region," the FSB statement said. It did not mention that a Ukrainian tugboat was rammed.
Although a 2003 treaty designates the Kerch Strait and Sea of Azov as shared territorial waters, Russia has been asserting greater control over the passage since 2015.
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said earlier that Russia's actions violated the U.N. Charter and international law, and pledged to "promptly inform our partners about Russia's aggressive actions."
"Such actions pose a threat to the security of all states in the Black Sea region," the statement said, "and therefore require a clear response from the international community."
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, after a meeting with his National Security Council, said in a statement he would ask parliament Monday to take up the issue of whether to implement martial law over the incident.
About 50-100 people gathered outside the Russian Embassy in Kiev to protest Moscow's actions.
Dmitry Kiselyov, a commentator on Russian state-controlled TV, told viewers of his Sunday evening news program that Poroshenko, encouraged by the U.S., is looking to pick a fight with Russia in the Black Sea.
The talk show host also alleged the U.S. talked Poroshenko into staging a provocation against Russia as a means to disrupt an upcoming meeting between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump at this week's Group of 20 summit in Argentina.
"What is happening now at the (Kerch) bridge threatens to turn into a very unpleasant story," Kiselyov said.