Black Sea Fleet row moves close to brink: Yeltsin and Kravchuk try to mend fences as relations between Russia and Ukraine hit a new low

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RUSSIA and Ukraine sparred with each other again yesterday but stopped their row over the Black Sea Fleet from coming to blows in the hope that a summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States today may produce a solution.

President Boris Yeltsin had hoped to use the 12-nation gathering in Moscow to discuss economic integration, but instead he will have to closet himself with Ukraine's leader, Leonid Kravchuk, to try to bring bilateral relations up from their lowest point since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Tension rose again yesterday when the Russian-dominated fleet command at Sevastopol in Crimea sent a troop-carrying vessel to Odessa in Ukraine. Russia accused Ukraine of evicting fleet personnel from their flats in Odessa and said the vessel was going to pick them up, but Ukraine saw its dispatch as a threat. Later, the ship returned to base and the scare passed.

The latest crisis in the long- running saga of the Black Sea Fleet began last Saturday when a group of Russian officers, complaining that Kiev was failing to pay its share for ship upkeep, commandeered the research vessel Cheleken at Odessa and took it to Sevastopol. Ukrainian coastguards pursued the Cheleken and said the Russians fired on them with tracer bullets.

On Monday, Ukraine retaliated for what it called Russia's 'theft of valuable navigation equipment' by sending soldiers to take over the base of the fleet's 318th division at Odessa. Russia said some of its officers and civilians were slightly injured in the raid, but Ukraine denied using force.

At this point, the two republics, which had each inherited nuclear weapons from the Soviet arsenal, seemed to realise they were heading for a serious conflict and pulled back from the brink, getting their leaders to talk on the telephone instead.

But the situation worsened again yesterday when Russia said that Ukraine was forcing some 18 naval families living in Odessa to move out. Ukrainian authorities, in a panic, said the fleet command had sent three ships to Odessa.

'A big troop-carrying ship, a cruiser and an anti-submarine vessel have left Sevastopol for Odessa,' said a spokesman for the Defence Ministry in Kiev. 'The official reason is that the ships are to pick up families wanting to leave. But is such an armada needed to pick up 18 families?'

Independent radio in Crimea spoke of only one ship, a troop carrier, heading out from Sevastopol. The fleet spokesman confirmed this but said the vessel had later turned back to base because the Ukrainian Defence Minister, Vitaly Radetsky, had said he would bar it from entering Odessa.

Mr Yeltsin and Mr Kravchuk must now sort out the mess. They had been getting on well since Ukraine agreed early this year to give up its nuclear weapons, but the fleet row has spoiled everything.

Part of the problem is that whatever the two presidents agree, a solution is difficult to enforce. Mr Yeltsin and Mr Kravchuk have already made three deals - to manage the fleet jointly, to divide it equally and for Russia to have it in exchange for the cancellation of Ukraine's huge energy debts - only to see these accords unravel. If a solution is not reached this time and made to stick, there is a danger of armed conflict between the giants of the former Soviet Union.