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Russia says it will allow German, French experts to monitor Kerch Strait

STR/AFP | Seized Ukrainian military vessels are seen in a port of Kerch, Crimea, on November 26, 2018.

Russia on Friday said it had already agreed that France and Germany would monitor shipping traffic in the Kerch Strait following a naval confrontation between Moscow and Kiev in November, but that foreign observers had yet to arrive.

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Russian ships fired on and seized three Ukrainian navy vessels in the narrow strait -- shared between Russia and Ukraine -- as the boats tried to pass from the Black Sea to the Azov Sea on November 25.

President Vladimir Putin had "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.

The November confrontation was the first open military incident between Kiev and Moscow since 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula and a conflict erupted in eastern Ukraine.

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.

Petro Poroshenko, the president of Ukraine, told FRANCE 24 in December that the Russian president was refusing to enter into dialogue, making it difficult to make progress on ending the crisis.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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