Ukraine crisis: Tense stand-off aboard blockaded ship

The BBC's Christian Fraser describes the tense atmosphere on board a blockaded Ukrainian warship

The Slavutych is one of the two Ukrainian warships blockaded in the port of Sevastopol. As loaves of bread were being ferried aboard this morning, we managed to get a launch to take us across - the first camera allowed on this ship since the stand-off began a week ago.

Through tense days and nights, more than 100 sailors and marines have manned the rails of the Slavutych, refusing to surrender. It is roped to the Ternopil, a corvette.

Both ships have been pushed off the dock to prevent the Russians boarding but from the bow we now had an elevated view of the odds that are stacked against them.

We counted six vessels from the Black Sea Fleet that are blocking the channel.

On board the men were running drills, the marines were darting backwards and forwards, around the missile batteries - as if the assault they anticipate was already under way.

There was one on Monday night. They said they had repelled it.

But the truth is their ammunition has been stashed. The magazines on the marines' rifles are all empty. The only defence they'll use is the hosepipes.

The Ukrainian naval ships Slavutych (L) and Ternipol The Ukrainian naval ships Slavutych (L) and Ternipol are blockaded in port

"We won't be drawn into an armed conflict," said the deputy commander, Alexander Goncharov.

"We have locked the ammunition away. We'll defend the ship as best we can. But we are not getting dragged into a war."

And so they dress the railings of the ship in mattresses. Would they really deter the hooks and lines of a determined Russian marine force?

It seems, however, the Russian fleet is content with the current situation, best described as containment. Though it could go on for some time.

There's enough food on board for two months and enough fuel to get to Turkey. They have electricity and water.

But the men worry. They worry about their country, they worry about where it will end, most of all they worry about their families who come to the dockside, bravely to show their support.

And the blockade is wearing.

This week, the crew say, Russian divers have been beneath the ship. Their own divers went down today to ensure there was nothing clinging to the hull.

"They come most nights," said Lieutenant Dmitry Schevchenko.

"We put extra guards on the rails at night. I think they hope we will tire. But we won't. We are patriotic. We love our country."

What if Crimea is annexed, I ask - what then?

"I don't know," he said. "It's the commander's decision. Maybe we go to Odessa? It's such a beautiful party of the country, Crimea. I hope it doesn't come to that."

There was a notable absence of Russian troops on the dockside today, at least, an absence of the "regular" troops.

Men dressed as Russian Cossacks stand on a hill guarding access to the Ukrainian naval command ship Slavutych Men dressed as Russian Cossacks have been guarding access to the Slavutych

Around mid-morning the word was spreading of our presence on the ship. And down the road to the quay came a squad of men dressed as Russian Cossacks.

Suddenly our only exit was cut off, our driver was being interrogated. And now we would have our own taste of what this Ukrainian crew has endured this past week.

The Cossacks, in fairness, may not have meant us any harm. But after two bruising encounters in recent days, each time confronted by pro-Russian supporters, we weren't about to test their charity.

Eventually a senior officer from the ship did venture ashore. The men, he said, were a self-defence unit, and their commander had promised us safe exit.

He was good to his word. It was a tense few hours. The Ukrainians have lived through it for days.

In the end the Cossacks escorted us back to the hotel - "for your protection", they said. "You never know," said the commander. "There are some here who might do you harm."


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