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Ukraine hits out at Russia's blockade of Sea of Azov ports

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The ports of Mariupol (above) and Berdyansk saw earnings fall by almost a quarter during the first seven months of this year, compared with the same period last year, according to Ukrainian media.

Mariupol, Ukraine

SEAGULLS whirl over the docks of Ukraine's port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov as huge cranes once used to unload ships' cargoes stand idle.

The uncharacteristic quiet is the product of rising tensions in the small sea, the waters of which Russia and Ukraine agreed to share more than a decade ago, but is now the latest theatre in the bitter conflict between the two nations.

Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 means ships must now pass through a narrow strait bordered by Russian-controlled territory on both sides, while Kremlin-backed rebel regions of eastern Ukraine are uncomfortably close to Mariupol.

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In a growing crisis, Kiev and the West accuse Russia of deliberately blocking ships from entering the sea.

"The whole time I've worked here, I've never seen anything like it," said Sergiy Kostyrko, a tanned foreman who has worked at the Mariupol docks for 23 years. "Ships have become very rare visitors to our port." Ukraine criticises what it sees as a deliberate move by Moscow to block the Kerch Strait, the only shipping route into the Azov Sea, where Ukraine's commercial ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk are crucial gateways for its metallurgy industry exports.

Kiev has warned that Russia could even launch an attack on Mariupol.

Russia is trying to block Ukraine's ports on the Sea of Azov acting "to escalate tensions and, it cannot be ruled out, to carry out a military operation (including) attacks on Mariupol", Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko declared in July.

In a sign of the conflict's growing scale, the United States has condemned Russia for impeding maritime transit as part of a campaign "to undermine and destabilise Ukraine".

"We call on Russia to cease its harassment of international shipping in the Sea of Azov," the US Department of State said in a statement in late August.

The European Union's delegation to Ukraine said earlier this month that Russia "has increasingly and deliberately hindered and delayed the passage of vessels, including vessels from EU member states".

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova insisted this week that "Russia's actions in checking ships are aimed solely at security". "It is precisely Kiev's actions, those of its uncontrollable radicals, that force Russia to strengthen security measures," she said.

Ukrainian media reported that the ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk saw earnings fall by almost a quarter during the first seven months of this year, compared with the same period last year. AFP