Russian authorities on December 14 released the Ukrainian cargo ship Almaz and its 10 crewmen, seized in Georgia’s port of Batumi and held incommunicado since December 4. (See Monitor, December 13) The captain of the vessel is still being held. Russia’s Foreign Ministry yesterday provided "explanations" of the incident, as demanded by Georgia in a vehement protest note. Russian first deputy foreign minister Boris Pastukhov publicly conceded yesterday that Russian border troops had "violated certain norms" and urged that "the incident be laid to rest… without affecting Russian-Georgian relations." Duma chairman Gennady Seleznev, conceding a "misunderstanding" on Russia’s part, called the failure to notify Ukraine and Georgia "unpardonable." The Russian border troops’ Moscow command announced that it has "no claims" on the Almaz; and Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) stated that it consented to release the crew "due to the good neighborly relations which exist between Russia and Ukraine." The Almaz, with its load of Georgian citrus fruit, was allowed to leave Batumi for Ukraine.
It was learned over the weekend that warships of Russia’s border troops had seized the Almaz at the behest of Russia’s FSB, which wanted to arrest the crew and impound the ship for having smuggled food and alcoholic beverages from Bulgaria to Russia last August. The 11 Ukrainian sailors were flown to Novorossiisk and held under arrest by local FSB authorities. Russia’s border troops alleged that the agreement on "jointly guarding the sections of Georgia’s borders which coincide with the CIS outer borders" authorized them to seize a third country’s ship and crew on Georgian territory. Senior Georgian officials, however, rejected that claim and publicly branded the seizure as "blatant piracy" on December 12. Kiev for its part reacted timidly, concerned above all — as foreign minister Hennady Udovenko and Security and Defense Council head Volodymyr Horbulin stated — to avoid exacerbating Russian-Ukrainian tensions in the Black Sea. These officials admitted to the August smuggling run of the Almaz and chose not to challenge the Russian seizure. It was left to Georgia’s Foreign Ministry to demand the immediate return of the Ukrainian ship and crew to Ukraine. (Interfax, Itar-Tass, NTV, December 13-15)
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