Thu, 12 Dec 2019

Russia is expected to return three seized Ukrainian naval vessels sometime on November 18 as German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas travels to Kyiv.

The three ships were seen early on November 17 being towed off the eastern coast of the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, accompanied by Russian naval vessels.

Interfax cited a source in Russia's Federal Security Service as saying the handover would take place in neutral waters in the Black Sea, whereas Ukrainian media reported that the vessels would be transferred about 60 miles from Ukraine's port city of Odesa near Cape Tarkhankut off the Crimean peninsula.

The ships -- two small armored vessels and a tug boat -- were seized along with 24 crewmen by Russia off the coast of Crimea in November 2018.

Moscow, whose 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine has gone largely unrecognized around the world, alleged that the ships had illegally entered its territorial waters.

In turn, Kyiv insists the Black Sea is open, shared waters based on bilateral and international agreements.

On May 25, the UN's maritime tribunal ordered Russia to immediately release the crewmen and impounded boats, a ruling that Moscow has ignored.

The 24 Ukrainian crewmen were released on September 7 as part of a prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine during which each side swapped 35 captives.

The most recent events followed comments a day earlier by Andriy Yermak, a top aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who said the turnover of the ships was under way.

'The process of returning the...ships seized in November has entered its final stage,' Yermak was quoted by Novoye Vremya as saying.

Since his election this spring, Zelenskiy has moved quickly to find a way to try and end the conflict with Moscow.

Now in its sixth year, the fighting between Russia-backed separatist formations and Ukrainian government forces has killed more than 13,000 people in eastern Ukraine.

Next month, the leaders of Germany, France, Ukraine, and Russia are expected to meet in Paris in an effort to find a resolution to the conflict.

With reporting by Novoye vremya, Kommersant, dpa, and Interfax

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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