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story.lead_photo.caption This video grab provided by the Krym 24 tv station via AP Television shows a seized Ukrainian ship, right, being towed by a Russian coast guard boat out of the port in Kerch, Crimea, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019. Russia's Foreign Ministry says three Ukrainian naval ships that were seized in a shooting confrontation nearly a year ago have been returned. (Krym 24 tv station via AP Television)

MOSCOW -- Three Ukrainian naval ships that were seized by Russia nearly a year ago have been returned, Russia's Foreign Ministry said Monday.

The two gunboats and a tug were taken by the Russian coast guard on Nov. 25, 2018, as they maneuvered near the Kerch Strait that connects the Black Sea with the Azov Sea. The Kerch Strait runs between mainland Russia and Russia-annexed Crimea.

Russia claimed the Ukrainian ships had violated procedures for transiting the strait, while the Ukrainians said they were traveling in international waters.

The Russian coast guard fired shots, then seized the ships and their crew of 24 Ukrainian sailors. The sailors were detained for 10 months and returned home in September as part of a prisoner exchange.

The ships were returned because investigators no longer needed them for their criminal probe, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. Kyiv said it took Moscow nearly six months to implement a May 25 order by an international tribunal to hand over the boats.

Ukraine's Foreign Ministry said that the Ukrainian authorities will conduct a thorough check of the ships to make sure that no equipment is missing. It said that regardless of the ships' return, Ukraine will press the case against the Russian seizure of the ships in an international tribunal.

[Video not showing up above? Click here to watch » https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PX3nGsMQMOI]

The move comes as French President Emmanuel Macron prepares to host Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Paris on Dec. 9 as part of "Normandy Format" talks to resolve tensions around the conflict in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russian-backed fighters.

Putin informed Macron of the ship transfer in a phone call Monday in which the two also discussed the peace process, the Kremlin said in a statement. Last month saw the first breakthrough since a stalled 2015 peace accord as negotiators agreed on a schedule to hold elections and a new law granting the contested areas special status, paving the way for the December meeting.

Moscow said the ship handover wasn't linked to the upcoming talks, Interfax news service reported Saturday, citing the Russian Foreign Ministry.

The Kremlin said Putin and Macron agreed the meeting should help "quickly and fully" implement a 2015 peace plan for eastern Ukraine that was brokered by France and Germany. The Minsk agreement envisages broad autonomy for the separatist regions in eastern Ukraine and an amnesty for the rebels.

The Kremlin said Putin and Macron also talked about the need for Ukraine to fulfill its obligations under the political aspects of the deal, including passing a law giving a special status to the rebel regions.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Monday that Moscow expects France to make sure that the four-way meeting "underlines that the Minsk agreement is inviolable and has no alternative."

Information for this article was contributed by Jake Rudnitsky and Kateryna Choursina of Bloomberg News; and by staff members of The Associated Press.

A Section on 11/19/2019

Print Headline: Russia returns 3 naval ships to Ukraine

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