BRUSSELS - EU leaders extended punishing economic sanctions against Russia over the conflict in Ukraine for another six months on Thursday, amid heightened tensions over the Azov Sea clash.
The EU first imposed the measures in July 2014 after Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine, killing 298 people, an attack blamed by the West on pro-Russian rebels.
Russian economy targeted
The sanctions target whole sectors of the Russian economy including its valuable oil businesses.
"EU unanimously prolongs economic sanctions against Russia given zero progress in implementation of Minsk agreements," EU President Donald Tusk tweeted from a summit in Brussels.
The EU-brokered Minsk peace agreement, endorsed by both Moscow and Kiev, was first reached in late 2014 and then re-worked in early 2015 but is violated regularly.
The Ukraine-Russia conflict flared up again last month when Russian forces seized three Ukrainian vessels and sailors as they tried to pass through the Kerch Strait from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov.
28 leaders renew criticism
The 28 EU leaders renewed their criticism of Russia over the incident, voicing their "utmost concern" at Moscow's "violations of international law" in a strongly-worded summit statement.
"There is no justification for the use of military force by Russia," the statement said, calling once again for the sailors to be released.
Earlier on Thursday, the NATO military alliance announced it would give Ukraine secure communications equipment by the end of the year to help it combat Russia's "destabilizing behaviour."
Along with sector-wide economic sanctions, the EU has measures targeting individuals and organisations over Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and in connection with the conflict in Ukraine.
The leaders said the EU "stands ready to adopt measures to strengthen further its support, including in favour of the affected areas of Ukraine" — opening the door to new sanctions.
9 added to list of people facing sanctions
Earlier this week the EU hit nine more people with sanctions over elections in the breakaway pro-Russian regions of Ukraine which were condemned as illegitimate by the international community.
But new measures would require the unanimous support of all 28 EU countries and some with strong business ties or political sympathies with Russia are resistant to the idea.
The war in eastern Ukraine between government forces and rebels backed by Moscow has claimed more than 10,000 lives and rumbles on despite a series of periodic truce deals.