Further reports are emerging from Ukraine that Russian forces are possibly taking crews from foreign-flagged ships that have been trapped in ports including Mariupol since the fighting began nearly two months ago. Russian media is reporting that the crews have been removed for their safety as fighting continues in the area around the port in Mariupol, while Ukrainian authorities are accusing the Russian forces of “seizing” the crew and taking them away to unknown places.

Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada Commissioner for Human Rights Liudmyla Denisova posted the accusations on her online media accounts and it has been widely carried by Ukrainian media and human rights organizations. There, however, is no independent confirmation and it is not known if the seafarers have willing left their vessels or were removed by force.

The vessel being cited by the Ukrainians is a bulker that arrived in Mariupol on February 21 days before the invasion began. The Smarta, registered in Liberia and reportedly crewed by Ukrainian citizens had traveled from Egypt and was due to load in Mariupol before sailing to Turkey. Built in 2007 and managed by Intresco, the 15,968 dwt vessel is reported to have had a crew of 18 Ukrainians and one Egyptian aboard. The message said that the captain’s wife was also staying on the vessel.

“On the territory of the Mariupol Commercial Sea Port, the Russian military seized and took away in an unknown direction the crew members of the Smarta,” Denisova wrote in the posting. She said in the statement that according to preliminary data, the crewmembers were taken out in the direction of the occupied Donetsk region and that there has been no contact with them since they were removed from their ship. 

Possible confirmation of the removal of the crew came from statements made by Russian-aligned separatist forces. On April 10, Russian state media quoted the Russian-aligned forces saying, “Military personnel of Russia’s Armed Forces and the DPR have de-blockaded 47 crew members from Russia, Azerbaijan, Egypt, and Ukraine, who were holed up on board of the ships.” 

The Ukrainian reports also stated that the Smarta had come under fire from Russian troops before the vessel was boarded. While that has not been confirmed, the Russian state-owned news outlet TASS over the weekend quoted Russian Defense Ministry Spokesman Igor Konashenkov saying that a patrol vessel of the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet opened fire on and damaged the bulk carrier Apache in the Sea of Azov. Both the Russians and Ukrainians also reported that the Dominica-flagged vessel Azburg was hit, set on fire, and possibly sunk at the pier at Mariupol, although each side blamed the other for the incident.

Unions and international relief agencies have been bringing seafarers and their families trapped in the eastern regions out to safety while earlier international efforts evacuated crewmembers from ships anchored in the Black Sea. The IMO and ILO recently made a call for safe passage for the crew or to permit the vessels to leave the war-torn region of Ukraine.

Source: The Maritime Executive