Ukraine leader vows to bring home sailors captured by Russia


Kiev (AFP)

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Tuesday met with families of Ukrainian sailors captured by Moscow, vowing to do everything in his power to bring them back home.

"For me there's nothing more important than getting them out," Poroshenko told relatives of some of the 24 seamen taken by Russia last month.

"All of Ukraine is now proud of your loved ones," he said during the emotional meeting in his office.

"Now all of Ukraine has united to support our sailors," the president added, hugging the captives' family members, some teary-eyed.

Late last month Russia opened fire on and seized three Ukranian navy vessels, detaining the 24 crew members off Moscow-annexed Crimea.

The incident was the most dangerous in years between the ex-Soviet neighbours, who have been locked in conflict over the annexation of Crimea and Russian-backed separatist regions since 2014.

Despite international calls for their release, the Ukrainians were sentenced to two months detention and are now held in Moscow.

Three of the captives are undergoing treatment for injuries.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said at the weekend that Moscow would not release the sailors as part of an exchange.

Kremlin critics have said Russia is preparing for a show trial.

Poroshenko insisted Tuesday that their detention was illegal.

"According to their status, according to the Geneva Convention, they are prisoners of war and cannot be tried in any Kremlin court," he said.

Russia insists the Ukrainian vessels crossed into Russian waters illegally.

Kiev last week imposed martial law for 30 days in 10 regions that border Russia, the Black Sea and the Azov Sea.

Poroshenko has warned of a build-up of Russian forces near Ukraine's borders, claims the Kremlin has dismissed.

European leaders have rebuffed calls from Ukraine for greater support against Russia, after Kiev urged NATO to send ships into disputed waters.

Ukraine has accused Moscow of blocking merchant vessels from entering and leaving the ports.

But Kiev said Tuesday that Russia had begun allowing some ships to enter Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov, in what could signal an easing of tensions in the flashpoint area.