NATO backs Ukraine amid crisis with Russia

Military alliance’s 29 members call on Moscow to release Ukrainian sailors and vessels without delay, slam Russian violence

NATO backs Ukraine amid crisis with Russia

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expressed support late Tuesday for Ukraine amid its deepening crisis with Russia in the latest escalation of their four-year conflict.

"There is no justification for Russia's use of military force against Ukrainian ships and naval personnel. We call on Russia to release the Ukrainian sailors and ships it seized without delay," the military alliance said in a statement.

NATO said Russian violence against Ukrainian vessels and sailors is unacceptable.

"In view of Russia's use of military force against Ukraine near the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait, NATO Allies call on Russia to ensure unhindered access to Ukrainian ports and allow freedom of navigation," the statement said.

"We reiterate our full support to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders and territorial waters.”

NATO said it stands with Ukraine and will continue to provide it with political and practical support and monitor the situation.

It also strongly condemned Russia's illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea, saying the organization won't recognize the move.

Russia seized two Ukrainian navy ships and a navy tugboat along with 23 crew members Sunday off Crimea, accusing Kiev of entering its waters and provoking a conflict.

It said the vessels had ignored calls to stop, sparking military action.

Russia intervened as the Ukrainian ships were relocating from the Black Sea port of Odessa to the port of Mariupol in the Sea of Azov.

Videos appeared online showing a Russian coast guard vessel ramming the Ukrainian navy tugboat in the Kerch Strait.

Ukraine also accused Russian warships of opening fire on the ships, asserting that crew members were wounded and the vessels were seized by Russia.

Russia and Ukraine have been at loggerheads since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea after a controversial referendum.

Turkey, as well as the UN General Assembly, viewed the annexation as illegal.

Ukraine has also blamed Russia for separatist violence in eastern Ukraine near the border with Russia.

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