Tension ramped up as pro-Russian forces seize Ukrainian warships

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Pro-Russian forces have seized three Ukrainian warships and Ukraine said its troops were being threatened in Crimea as the US announced a new round of sanctions against Russia.

Tensions in the region remained high despite the release of a Ukrainian naval commander held by pro-Russian forces.

Shots were fired but there were no casualties as the Ukrainian corvette Khmelnitsky was seized in Sevastopol, according to reports. Another ship, the Lutsk, was also surrounded by pro-Russian forces. Witnesses also reported Ukrainian servicemen disembarking a third ship, the Ternopil corvette.

The Defence Ministry had no immediate information on the incidents. Ukrainian deputy defence minister Leonid Polyakov accused Russian troops of constantly threatening to storm military bases where Ukrainian soldiers were located, according to the Interfax news agency.

In Geneva, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations warned of a sharp deterioration in relations between the two neighbours, saying that Russia appears to be preparing for a military “invasion” in more areas of his country.

Ambassador Yuri Klymenko said there were “indications that Russia is on its way to unleash a full-blown military intervention in Ukraine’s east and south” since its annexation of the Black Sea peninsula. He said his statement was based on information from non-governmental organisations.

President Barack Obama has expanded US economic sanctions against Moscow, targeting President Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff and 19 other individuals as well as a Russian bank that provides them support. Mr Obama also warned of more costs to come for the Kremlin if the situation worsens, saying he also had signed an executive order that would allow the US to penalise key sectors of the Russian economy.

Within minutes of Mr Obama’s speech, Russia retaliated by banning entry to nine US officials and lawmakers.

Speaking after meeting with Mr Putin in Moscow, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said he “emphasised that all parties refrain from any hasty or provocative actions that could further exacerbate an already very tense and very volatile situation”.

Earlier in an address to the German Parliament in Berlin, Chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU was readying further sanctions and that the G8 forum of leading economies had been suspended indefinitely. Russia holds the presidency of the G8 and President Vladimir Putin was due to host his counterparts at a G8 summit in Sochi in June.

“So long as there aren’t the political circumstances, like now, for an important format like the G8, then there is no G8,” Ms Merkel said. “Neither the summit, nor the format.”

Ms Merkel reiterated that if things worsen, the EU is prepared to move to “level 3” measures, which would include economic sanctions.

Her tough approach came as the commander of Ukraine’s navy was freed after being held by Russian forces and local Crimean militia at the navy’s headquarters in Crimea.

Rear Admiral Sergei Haiduk and an unspecified number of civilians were held for hours after the navy’s headquarters in Sevastopol was stormed.

Acting Ukrainian president Oleksandr Turchynovsaid Russian forces were involved in the storming.