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Moscow - Twenty people were feared dead on Tuesday after a fire engulfed two cargo ships near the Crimean Peninsula.

The death toll stood at 10, with another 10 missing, as rescue workers suspended their search until Wednesday, the Russian news agency Interfax reported.

Twelve people survived the incident, the agency reported.

The blaze on the two ships, unleashed by an explosion, occurred on Monday off the southern coast of Crimea, at the entrance to the Kerch Strait, which connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.

Sailors from India and Turkey were aboard the two ships. Some saved themselves by diving into the water, some of them suffering burn wounds and others hypothermia.

Both cargo vessels were sailing under the flags of Tanzania, and one of them was a gas tanker.

Preliminary information suggested the explosion could have occurred as fuel was being transferred from one ship to another, Russian media reported.

Russia's annexation of Crimea from neighbouring Ukraine in 2014 and a simmering pro-Russian rebellion in Ukraine's east have led to tensions in the surrounding waters of the Black Sea.

In November, Russia's coastguard opened fire on several Ukrainian naval vessels in the Kerch Strait, seizing them and Ukrainian crew members for alleged border violations.

Ships must often wait weeks before being allowed to pass through the Kerch Strait to the Sea of Azov. Ukraine has alleged that ships that want to sail on to Ukrainian harbours are hassled by Russian authorities.

dpa