RUSSIA TO ADMIT GERMAN AND FRENCH OBSERVERS TO KERCH STRAITS




Robert HARNEIS –TDO- Russia has agreed that France and Germany can observe shipping traffic in the Kerch Strait following a naval confrontation between Moscow and Kiev in November.

Russian ships fired on and seized three Ukrainian navy vessels in the narrow strait -- shared between Russia and Ukraine -- after the boats tried to pass from the Black Sea to the Azov Sea on November 25 without seeking clearance from the Russian authorities.

President Vladimir Putin has "immediately agreed" to Berlin's request to send observers to the area, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a press conference with his German counterpart Heiko Maas.

Lavrov said German Chancellor Angela Merkel had asked Putin for permission to send German specialists to the strait "over a month ago" and later requested for French observers to join the mission.

"This can be done today, tomorrow, at any moment," Lavrov said, adding that the foreign observers had still not arrived.

Lavrov said he received concrete proposals for the mission from Maas on Friday and confirmed Moscow also agreed for the French observers to take part.

Maas, who was due to travel to Ukraine later on Friday, said that the two countries had not yet agreed on a start date to the mission but that he expected it to be a "topic in the coming weeks".

The German diplomat added that the passage of ships in the Kerch Strait is "currently open" and that "this has been confirmed by all sides".

He also called on Russia to release 24 Ukrainian sailors who were captured together with their vessels.

Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron raised their concerns with Putin over the tensions in the Kerch Strait at the G20 summit in Argentina last month.

Germany and France are both members of the "Normandy Four" group with Moscow and Kiev, set up to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Russia started the checking procedure on all shipping in the Kerch Straits after the Ukrainian SBU (National security agency) seized a Russian fishing vessel "Nord" and its entire crew in March 2018 in the Sea of Azov, well outside Ukrainian territorial waters. This was followed by the seizure of a Russian tanker in the port of Odessa and two other smaller Russian cargo vessels, because they had visited ports in Crimea before that.


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