Russia's naval command has ordered its Black Sea fleet to negotiate the return to Moscow's control of a Crimean peninsula lighthouse claimed by Ukraine, the object of the latest clash between the rival neighbors.
"The position of the Russian naval headquarters is firm: the Yalta lighthouse must be returned to Russian hydrography services and must function normally in order to ensure the security of navigation in the Black Sea region," Russia's naval commander-in-chief Vladimir Masorin said late on Saturday.
"I have given the order to the commander of the Black Sea fleet to take back control of the lighthouse, by use of methods of civilized discussion," Masorin was quoted by Interfax as saying.
A Russian navy spokesman said that a group of seven unidentified people had tried to enter another lighthouse in Crimea.
The report offered no further details and could not be immediately confirmed.
Ukraine's Foreign Minister Boris Tarasyuk insisted that lighthouses in Crimea belonged to Kiev.
"You can't seize something that's yours," he told the Interfax news agency. "Russia has unlawfully held onto all hydrographic sites ... There is no legal basis for Russia to insist that these sites are part of the Black Sea fleet."
A top foreign ministry official later told reporters that Russia "unlawfully" controls 35 out of the 100 hydrographic sites in Crimea.
The verbal salvos over the lighthouse are the latest in an ongoing dispute over Moscow's lease of Ukrainian territory for its Black Sea fleet, and amid intense rancor over a price hike Russia recently imposed on its natural gas sales to Ukraine.
Under a lease agreement that was signed in 1997, Moscow pays Kiev just under US$100 million annually to lease land and property for its Black Sea headquarters in Sevastopol, the southern Crimean port where the fleet was based in the Soviet era.
During the gas price standoff, Ukraine suggested that it could hike the cost of lease payments to bring them in line with what other governments pay to house military bases abroad. Russia has said the lease cannot be revised.
Russia accused Ukraine of "seizing" the Yalta lighthouse on Friday, during a maintenance session.
Captain Igor Dygalo, a Russian navy spokesman, said that in a move of "pure provocation," an eight-member team from the Ukrainian transport ministry "illegally entered the Yalta lighthouse under the pretext of maintaining the site and equipment, and then blocked access to Russian personnel."