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Tough talk between Russia Ukraine heats up Crimea stalemate

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Moscow: Ukraine put its troops on combat alert today along the country’s de-facto borders with Crimea and separatist rebels in the east amid an escalating  war of words with Russia over Crimea.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko issued the order after Moscow accused his country of sending several groups of “saboteurs” to carry out attacks in  Crimea and said that two Russians died while fending off their incursions. Ukraine has denied the claim.

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Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 following a hastily called referendum, and a conflict between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian  forces flared up in eastern Ukraine weeks later. The conflict in the east has killed more than 9,500 people and is still raging.

Russia’s domestic security agency known by its Russian acronym FSB said in yesterday’s statement that one of its officers was killed in a gun battle with a  group of “saboteurs” from Ukraine over the weekend. It said the intruders carried an arsenal of bombs, ammunition and mines.

The agency also said that two more groups tried to force their way into Crimea early Monday, supported by Ukrainian artillery and armor.

One Russian  army soldier died in that clash, the FSB said. Russian media reports say at least five members of a sabotage group were captured.

Also Read: Russia sends troops to Ukraine border in Crimea

One of the captured suspects, identified as Yevgeny Panov, told FSB investigators in remarks released by Russia’s REN TV television that he was part of a  group preparing to conduct acts of sabotage at a ferry crossing, an oil depot and a chemical factory and to blow up Russian military equipment. He said the  group was directed by Ukrainian military intelligence and included some of its officers.

Poroshenko rejected the Russian claims as “fantasy” and “a provocation.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced what he described as Ukraine’s “stupid and criminal” action and called a session of his Security Council  yesterday to discuss boosting security in Crimea.

He also said yesterday that it makes no sense to discuss the implementation of the Minsk peace deal for eastern Ukraine with leaders of Ukraine, France  and Germany at the sidelines of the Group of 20 meeting in China next month as had been planned earlier.

The Russian Foreign Ministry followed up today by warning that if Poroshenko had been involved in “criminal decisions to stage armed provocations” in  Crimea, “he could claim the role of the grave digger of the Minsk process.” “And if he had been unaware of these decisions, it’s even worse,” it said.

Poroshenko, in his turn, ordered Ukrainian troops to go on combat alert not only on the de-facto border with Crimea but also along the line of contact in  eastern Ukraine, where the warring sides have continued to routinely exchange fire despite a 2015 truce.