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Russian authorities say a fire that broke out on two Tanzanian-flagged commercial vessels off the Crimean Peninsula has killed at least 10 people, while 12 sailors have been rescued and 10 others are listed as missing.
The two ships have the same names as two gas-transporting tankers — the Maestro and Venice — that were included on a U.S. sanctions advisory note last year for delivering fuel to Syria.
The Novorossiisk Maritime Rescue Center in Russia said early on January 22 that rescuers managed to recover 10 bodies from the blaze, which broke out on January 21 when one ship was transferring fuel to the other near the Kerch Strait.
A spokesman for the Russian rescue center said bad weather conditions were preventing the rescued sailors from being brought to shore.
The spokesman also said the fire could not be extinguished in the rough waters and was continuing to burn early on January 22.
Russian news agencies reported that once the fire began, it quickly spread from one ship to the other, prompting the crews to jump overboard.
The 17-member crew of one ship included nine Turkish citizens and eight sailors from India.
The crew of the other ship, the Maestro, was comprised of seven Turkish sailors, seven Indian citizens, and citizen of Libya.
Interfax reported that a criminal inquiry had been launched into the incident.
Some reports said violations of safety rules may have caused the fire.
The tragedy occurred after one of the ships, the Maestro, was barred from using Temryuk port in southern Russia by the owners of its gas terminal due to U.S. sanctions risk, the Reuters news agency quoted two industry sources as saying.
In a note published in November, the Treasury Department advised that any dealings with the Maestro, Venice, or other vessels involved in transporting fuel to Syria could result in sanctions.
The Kerch Strait, a narrow waterway that links the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, has been the focus of tension between Russia and Ukraine.
Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in March 2014, sending in troops and staging a referendum that the United Nations General Assembly says has “no validity.”
However, based on its claim that Crimea is now part of Russia, the Kremlin is maintaining that the Black Sea approach to the Kerch Strait is now exclusively Russia’s territorial waters.
In November, Russian security forces fired on and seized three Ukrainian vessels off the coast of Crimea near the Kerch Strait.
Moscow claims the Ukrainian Navy ships illegally entered Russian territorial waters off the Crimean coast
Russia continues to hold the 24 Ukrainian Navy sailors it detained in the incident.
They are facing trial on charges of illegally crossing into Russian territorial waters.
Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036