Russia prolongs detention of Ukraine sailors amid prisoner swap talks

Moscow (AFP) –


A Russian court on Wednesday prolonged the detention of Ukrainian sailors captured last year near Crimea, in the midst of sensitive prisoner-swap talks between the two ex-Soviet neighbours.

Moscow's Lefortovsky district court ruled that 13 of the sailors must stay in detention for an extra three months until October 24.

Another 11 will hear their fate later Wednesday.

After the hearing, the sailors were escorted out of the courtroom by masked security officers as relatives and supporters applauded.

Relatives sported yellow bracelets bearing the names of the sailors, who face up to six years in prison on charges of illegally crossing Russian borders.

In the cramped courtroom, the sailors, who have described themselves as "prisoners of war", were held in a metal-barred cage reserved for defendants.

The Ukrainians have been imprisoned since their three vessels were seized off Crimea last November, the most dangerous direct clash between Russia and Ukraine in years.

Kiev and its Western allies have called for the men to be released.

"We keep hoping," Iryna Guzhanska, whose husband Yury Budzylo is among the prisoners, said before the hearing began.

"They haven't done anything wrong."

Lawyer Nikolai Polozov, who heads the defence team, said Russia and Ukraine were negotiating a possible prisoner exchange. He declined to discuss any details.

Ukraine's rights ombudsman Lyudmyla Denysova, who attended the hearing, confirmed that talks about the "release" of the sailors and other Ukrainians were underway.

Speaking ahead of the hearing, Polozov said Russia would likely extend the sailors' detention "as a manoeuvre to exercise control."

In November, Russia opened fire on three Ukrainian navy vessels as they tried to pass through the Kerch Strait from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov.

Russia has said the sailors will go on trial for violating its maritime borders.

Russia and Ukraine have been locked in a confrontation since 2014 when Moscow annexed Crimea and supported an insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

More than 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict.