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Frigate diverted to bolster NATO maritime force as Ukraine crisis deepens

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OTTAWA - Canada has diverted a warship to help NATO reassure eastern European allies jittery over the Ukraine crisis.

The frigate HMCS Regina, currently on counter-terrorism and anti-piracy patrols in the Arabian Sea, will be redirected to take part in alliance operations meant to send a message of resolve to Russia.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the move in the House of Commons on Wednesday, but did not say where the ship is headed.

NATO announced earlier this month it was beefing up maritime patrols in both the Baltic Sea and the Mediterranean as part of a deterrence package aimed at containing potential Russian ambitions.

A spokesperson for Defence Minister Rob Nicholson was unable to say where the warship will be going because NATO planning is still underway.

The ship deployed to the Indian Ocean on Jan. 6.

Six Canadian CF-18 jetfighters left their base in Bagotville, Que., on Tuesday, headed for an air base in Romania, and eventual patrols along that country's border with Ukraine — and possibly over the Black Sea.

National Defence also announced that a team of navy clearance divers would deploy next month for an exercise in Latvia, one of the Baltic states under threat.

The government also confirmed Wednesday that a Canadian military officer is heading an international arms-control verification team investigating so-called "unusual military activity" in the Ukraine. Three Canadians are assigned to the nine-member inspection team.

National Defence said in a statement that the team is working with Ukraine's central government to select locations for inspection but it will not include the disputed Crimea region, which was annexed by Russia.

The intent of the mission, which stems from a 2011 agreement, is to build military trust among European countries, especially those that had been in the former East Bloc.

The redirecting of HMCS Regina — with a crew of about 225 — comes as Ukraine's acting president conceded that the country's security forces are "helpless" to stem the unrest in two eastern regions bordering Russia.

Oleksandr Turchynov said his government's goal has changed and it now is simply trying to prevent the turmoil from spreading to other regions of the country.

Both the interim government in Kyiv and the West have accused Moscow of being behind the insurrection and protests. Canada, the U.S. and the European Union have all rolled out new sanctions against Russia.

New Democrat defence critic Jack Harris watched the new deployment with unease and said Canada has already made a meaningful contribution with its fighters.

"I don't think we should be trying to up the ante here in a military way," he said following question period. "We should be looking for ways to de-escalate, not escalate."

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