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Russia and Ukraine face worst environmental disaster in years

Rescuers on Monday recovered the bodies of three sailors of a Russian freighter that sank near the Black Sea, as environmental officials assessed damage from an oil tanker spill that could be the worst environmental disaster in the region in years.

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The Nakhichevan was one of two freighters that broke up as 18-foot (5.5-meter) waves battered ships throughout the region surrounding the Strait of Kerch, a narrow strait linking the Black Sea and the smaller Sea of Azov.

The dead sailors wearing life vests washed up near Tuzla on the western side of the strait, said Emergency Situations spokesman Sergei Kozhemyaka, and rescuers were looking for five others.

As many as 10 ships sank or ran aground in the strait and the northern Black Sea region during the fierce storm, including the tanker, the Volganeft-139, loaded with nearly 4,800 metric tons (1.3 million gallons) of fuel oil. Nearly half that amount had spilled into the strait and had begun washing up on nearby shorelines.

The Russian tanker's 13 crew members were rescued, authorities said.

Officials said it could be the worst environmental disaster in the region in years, and could take years to clean up.

Nakhichevan and the other freighter together were carrying about 6,500 metric tons (7,150 U.S. tons) of sulfur, which also spilled into the waters. Experts were trying to determine if there could be any long-term damage.

Alexei Zhukovin, an expert with the Emergency Situations Ministry's branch in southern Russia, said sulfur was not dangerous to the region's habitat.

Vesti 24 on Sunday reported the sinking of a Russian freighter carrying metal near the port of Sevastopol on Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. Two members of its 16-man crew drowned and one was missing, it said.

Maxim Stepanenko, a regional prosecutor, told Vesti 24 that captains had been warned Saturday about the stormy conditions. He said the Volganeft-139 - designed during Soviet times to transport oil on rivers - was not built to withstand a fierce storm.

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