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Page last updated at 17:09 GMT, Sunday, 22 February 2009

Russia defends sinking cargo ship

The stricken New Star in the Sea of Japan
The New Star sank shortly after turning back to port in heavy seas

Russia has expressed its regret over the deaths of eight Chinese and Indonesian sailors whose ship was fired on by Russian forces.

But Moscow blamed last week's incident squarely on the ship's captain.

The New Star, a Sierra Leone-flagged ship, sank soon after a Russian warship fired on it off the port of Nakhodka in the far east of Russia.

China's foreign ministry issued a strongly-worded protest to Moscow, demanding a full investigation.

But Russia says the Indonesian captain illegally crossed its border.

'Deliberate violation'

Border guards began chasing the New Star in icy waters after it left Nakhodka on 12 February without permission, Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement issued on Saturday.

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According to the statement, the guards fired on the cargo ship only after its captain had ignored all warnings - including warning shots - for 18 hours.

It said the captain then said he was returning to Nakhodka, but later decided to evacuate his crew, saying the ship's main engine had stopped and the rudder broken.

Eight crew - seven Chinese nationals and one Indonesian - died on 15 February after taking to the stormy waters in an open raft.

The Russian border guards rescued five Indonesians and three Chinese from another - closed - raft.

"We deeply regret and offer our condolences with regards to the tragic consequences of these events which led to human deaths," Russia's foreign ministry said.

The statement added that the captain had acted "extremely irresponsibly, deliberately violating the law of the Russian Federation and putting in jeopardy the safety of the crew of the ship".

The vessel's owner, Hong Kong-based J-Rui Lucky Shipping, has condemned the Russian authorities and called for a joint investigation panel to be set up to find out who should be held responsible.

The company said the New Star had arrived in Nakhodka at the end of January to deliver a consignment of rice, but that the purchaser had refused to accept it saying it was poor quality, and demanded compensation.

The company said officials in Nakhodka had dragged their feet giving the vessel clearance to leave, prompting the ship to depart without permission last Sunday.

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