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Russia rehearses swiftly moving military hardware to Crimea

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian naval and land forces have practiced swiftly moving military hardware and troops to annexed Crimea as part of a logistics exercise which foreshadows much larger war games there next month, the Russian Defence Ministry said.

The training exercise comes at a time of heightened tension between Russia and Ukraine after Moscow accused Kiev of sending saboteurs into the contested peninsula to carry out a series of bombings. Kiev has flatly denied that.

President Vladimir Putin flew into Crimea on Friday where he planned to hold a meeting of his Security Council.

The Defence Ministry said in a statement issued late on Thursday that Sergei Shoigu, the defence minister, had observed part of the training exercise which took place in the Russian port of Novorossiisk.

It said specialised logistic troops had cooperated with Russian Railways and the country’s merchant fleet to rehearse moving troops, armour and technical equipment to Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

Vessels from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet had also taken part, including a submarine, a large landing ship, mine-sweepers and an unspecified number of guided missile cruisers. Around 2,500 troops and up to 350 armoured vehicles had also been involved.

Shoigu had observed how quickly logistics troops were able to organise the loading of armoured vehicles and landing troops onto a large landing ship and how quickly they could re-arm a mine-sweeper and a submarine, the ministry said.

“Training on how to destroy groups of saboteurs and how to repel underwater attacks was carried out,” said the ministry.

“Sergei Shoigu rated highly the logistic troops’ actions and the fact that they were able to rapidly organise the movement of significant amounts of hardware to Crimea.”

It said the exercises, which also took place in a number of other locations, began on Aug. 16 and would end on Aug. 20.

Russia’s main military exercise for this year - Caucasus 2016 - is due to take place next month and will also involve Crimea and Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

The Russian army’s Red Star newspaper in January quoted Colonel-General Alexander Galkin as saying the exercise would check combat readiness and test how air, sea and land forces collaborated together.

Additional reporting by Katya Golubkova/Lidia Kelly; Editing by Alexander Winning