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Russia and Ukraine discuss Crimean isle

MOSCOW -- Russia and Ukraine agreed yesterday to negotiate in a dispute between the two nations over a small Crimean island that controls access to resource-rich waters.

Russia agreed to halt construction of a dike from the Russian mainland to Tuzla Island in the Kerch Strait that connects the Black and Azov seas, while Ukraine said it would consider withdrawing troops from the island after a review of the project by environmental authorities.

But Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov of Russia and his Ukrainian counterpart, Viktor Yanukovych, did not report progress on the disputed status of the Azov Sea and the Kerch Strait. They said the talks will continue and an agreement could be reached within two or three months.

Yanukovych told reporters after the talks that Ukraine contends Tuzla Island is "an inalienable part" of its territory, but Kasyanov emphasized that Russia considers its status "disputable."

Both emphasized the need to refrain from unilateral action, and Kasyanov said part of the blame for the crisis lies with the authorities of Russia's Krasnodar region, who ordered building the dike without asking the permission of Kasyaniv's Cabinet.

Kasyanov also expressed concern about Ukraine's military buildup in the area and emotional statements made by Ukrainian politicians. "We have been somewhat disappointed and distressed by the latest developments," he told Yanukovych.

Construction of the dike was stopped Thursday, hours after President Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine cut short a foreign trip to inspect Ukrainian border troops guarding Tuzla, which Ukraine claims as its territory.

Kasyanov said Russia would submit the dike project to Ukraine's environmental authorities, and specialists from both nations will jointly decide on the need to continue its construction.

Many Ukrainian politicians have maintained that the dike is a Russian attempt to appropriate Ukrainian land by connecting the Tuzla Island to the Krasnodar region and thus seize control of a key shipping channel between Tuzla and Ukraine's Crimea peninsula.

Russian officials said the project's goal is to reduce erosion. Tuzla was once the end of a spit stretching from Russia's mainland, but a storm in 1925 sheared it off, forming a new channel.

Crimea was given to Ukraine in 1954 when it was part of the Soviet Union. Some Russian officials now question whether Tuzla Island was included in that action.

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