Russia and Ukraine Embroiled In Fresh Conflict Over Lighthouse

MOSCOW, Russia -- Moscow and Kyiv headed into a fresh conflict Saturday over the status of a Ukrainian lighthouse used for navigation by Russia's Black Sea Fleet, fuelling tensions between the two former Soviet countries after their recent gas dispute.

Russia's navy chief insisted that Ukraine return the lighthouse in the Crimean city of Yalta. Moscow says it was seized illegally from its Black Sea Fleet, based in Ukraine under an 1997 agreement that divided up the old Soviet Black Sea Fleet.

But Ukraine's Foreign Ministry insisted that Russia had no right to control access to this and other lighthouses on the Crimean coast.

Employees of Ukraine's state hydrography company entered the lighthouse on Friday and barred their Russian counterparts from access to the site according to Russian officials.

Adm. Vladimir Masorin, commander of the Russian navy, demanded its immediate return.

"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," Masorin was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.

The Russian Navy's Black Sea Fleet, based in the port of Sevastopol, provides the Russian navy its only convenient access to the Mediterranean.

Ukrainian Foreign Ministry official Viktor Semenov dismissed the Russian demands, saying that Kyiv intended to reclaim control of all lighthouses currently occupied by the Russian navy.

"Lighthouses located on the Crimean seashore were, are and will remain Ukraine's property beginning from the moment of obtaining independence," with the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991, Semenov said.

"All these facilities will be returned to Ukraine's property in the nearest future," he added.

He said that there are 100 lighthouses on the Crimean seashore, and only 65 of them have been returned to Ukraine since 1997.

The remaining 35 are still operated by Russian naval personnel, which is "illegal," he told reporters in Kyiv.

Later, the Russian navy announced that a group of Ukrainians had tried unsuccessfully Saturday to break into a second lighthouse in Sevastopol. Russian state television said they were from nationalist youth organizations.

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 $93 million US annual rent Moscow pays for the use of Sevastopol.

Ties between Moscow and Kyiv 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.

Source: AP