UN court hears case of Ukraine sailors, ships held by Russia

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BERLIN (AP) — A U.N. court said Friday it will deliver a decision this month on Ukraine's demand for the release of 24 sailors and three naval vessels captured by Russia in November.

The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea set a tentative date of May 25 for its verdict.

The confrontation in the Kerch Strait, which links the Sea of Azov with the Black Sea, marked a flashpoint in the simmering conflict over Russia's 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Russia seized Crimea in a move that Ukraine and most of the world views as illegal.

Ukraine is demanding the immediate release of its sailors and ships, arguing that failure to do so would breach the country's rights. It also wants Russian legal proceedings against the sailors ended.

Lawyers for Ukraine told the Hamburg-based tribunal that the ships were in international waters when they were fired on and stopped by Russian coast guard vessels.

Russia, which didn't send a representative to the hearing, argues that the sovereignty rights Ukraine claims in the case don't apply because they are covered by a military exception. Kiev's lawyers contest this claim, saying Russia itself has previously described the arrest as a law enforcement operation.

The tribunal's decisions are legally binding, but it has no power to enforce them.

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