By Agence France-Presse
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko met Tuesday with families of Ukrainian sailors captured by Moscow, vowing to do everything in his power to bring them 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, hugging the captives’ family members, some teary-eyed.
Late last month Russia opened fire on and seized three Ukranian navy vessels as they tried to pass through the Kerch Strait from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov.
The 24 Ukrainian crew members, three of whom were wounded, were detained.
The incident was the most dangerous in years between the ex-Soviet neighbours, which have been locked in a confrontation since 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and supported an insurgency in eastern Ukraine.
More than 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict.
Despite international calls for their release, the Ukrainians were sentenced to two months detention and are now held in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that the Ukrainian vessels crossed into Russian waters illegally and insisted that Moscow will not release the sailors as part of an exchange.
The seamen have joined a long list of Ukrainians held in Russia including filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who refused food for 145 days in his Arctic penal colony earlier this year.
Kremlin critics have said Russia is preparing a show trial of the sailors.
The Ukrainians, charged with illegally crossing Russia’s borders, face up to six years in prison, Nikolai Polozov, one of the defence lawyers in the case, told AFP on Tuesday.
He said it remains unclear who is in charge of the criminal case. Calls to the Investigative Committee and the FSB security service went unanswered on Tuesday.
Poroshenko insisted that the seamen’s 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.
‘No threat to health’
In Russia, Moscow’s top rights official Tatyana Potyaeva visited the three wounded Ukrainian sailors who are being treated for hand, arm and leg injuries in the medical unit of the Matrosskaya Tishina remand prison.
“There is no threat to their health,” the ombudswoman said, adding they were receiving antibiotics and painkillers. Two of them also spoke to their relatives, she added.
On Tuesday the European Court of Human Rights, acting on a request from Kiev, called on Moscow to provide “appropriate medical treatment” to the wounded soldiers.
The other 21 are being held in Moscow’s high-security Lefortovo jail.
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.
On Tuesday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin pressed NATO to come up with a “comprehensive answer” to Russian aggression in the Black Sea, as the alliance treads carefully for fear of further escalating tensions.
In Brussels for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers, Klimkin hinted that at least one member was ready to step up its presence in the Black Sea, without naming it.
The foreign ministers discussed the standoff but did not agree any concrete new measures to help Ukraine.
Ukraine has accused Moscow of blocking commercial 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.