U.S. destroyer to conduct more drills in Black Sea amid Crimea crisis

ABOARD THE USS TRUXTUN, Bulgaria Sat Mar 15, 2014 2:40pm EDT

ABOARD THE USS TRUXTUN, Bulgaria (Reuters) - The USS Truxtun, a U.S. guided-missile destroyer, will carry out more exercises with allied ships in the Black Sea, its commander said on Saturday, the latest Western response to Russia's actions in Ukraine.

Commander Andrew Biehn was briefing reporters aboard the 300-crew destroyer as it lay docked in the Bulgarian port of Varna.

The USS Truxtun last week took part in drills with Romanian and Bulgarian ships a few hundred miles from the Russian forces that entered Ukraine's Russian-majority territory of Crimea after mass protests toppled Ukraine's pro-Moscow president.

The U.S. said the exercises were routine and had been planned long before the crisis erupted. But they coincided with air drills carried out by U.S. and Polish fighter jets in Poland and NATO reconnaissance flights over eastern Europe.

The naval exercises, carried out in international waters in the southwestern part of the Black Sea, did not include live firing.

Both the air and sea maneuvers have sent a message of resolve to NATO members nervous about Russia's intentions in its former Cold War backyard.

"This exercise was pre-planned several months ago and it was very important because we're able to work together with the Romanian navy and the Bulgarian navy," Biehn said.

"I cannot comment on our future operations but we'll take the opportunity to do some routine exercises with our allies in the region. Our operation was planned a long time before the start of the Crimean crisis."

Dozens of Russians linked to Russia's gradual takeover of Crimea could face U.S. and EU travel bans and asset freezes on Monday, after six hours of crisis talks between Washington and Moscow ended with both sides still far apart.

Moscow shipped more troops and armor into Crimea on Friday and repeated its threat to invade other parts of Ukraine in response to violence in Donetsk on Thursday night, despite Western demands to pull back.

(Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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