- The Washington Times - Friday, December 28, 2018

German and French leaders on Friday urged Russia to release the Ukrainian sailors and ships captured last month near the contested Crimean peninsula.

“We demand safe, free and unimpeded transit for all ships through the Kerch Strait and the immediate and unconditional release of all illegally detained Ukrainian seafarers,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanual Macron wrote in a joint statement.

“They too should be able to celebrate the upcoming festivities with their families,” the leaders wrote.

Russia intercepted the 24 sailors and three of their vessels on Nov. 25 as the Ukrainian crew traversed the Kerch Strait linking the Black and Azov Seas off the coast of Crimea, triggering international calls for their release and, according to President Trump, causing him to cancel a meeting planned with his Russan counterpart, Vladimir Putin, during last month’s G20 summit in Argentina.

Messages seeking reaction from the Kremlin and Russian Embassy in Washington were not immediately returned.

Russia annexed Crimea from neighboring Ukraine in early 2014, and Moscow has claimed that the crew was captured for illegally entering Russian waters.

“The human rights situation in Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in violation of international law, and the use of military force by Russia in the Straits of Kerch and abusive controls in the Sea of ​​Azov are also a source of great concern to us,” the French and German leaders wrote Friday.

Mr. Trump responded to Russia’s actions at the time by abruptly canceling a meeting with Mr. Putin that had been planned for the sidelines of last month’s G20 summit.

“Based on the fact that the ships and sailors have not been returned to Ukraine from Russia, I have decided it would be best for all parties concerned to cancel my previously scheduled meeting,” Mr. Trump said on Twitter while traveling to the summit. “I look forward to a meaningful Summit again as soon as this situation is resolved!”

Mr. Putin said previously that Russian border guards “acted in accordance with the orders they were given” by firing at the Ukrainian crew prior to capturing the sailors and ship.

“Any border guards of any country would do that if their border was violated,” Mr. Putin said earlier this month.

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