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Putin visits Crimea on annexation anniversary as grain deal extended

By AFP - Mar 18,2023 - Last updated at Mar 18,2023

This handout photograph taken and released by the Russian presidential press office in Sevastopol on Saturday shows Russian President Vladimir Putin as he visits the Chersonesos Taurica historical and archeological park on the 9th anniversary of the referendum on the state status of Crimea and Sevastopol and its reunification with Russia (AFP photo)

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday visited Crimea to mark the ninth anniversary of the peninsula's annexation, a day after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant against him over the Ukraine conflict.

Turkey, meanwhile, announced the extension of a deal that has allowed Ukraine to export grain following Russia's offensive, but Kyiv and Moscow disagreed if the agreement was prolonged for 60 or 120 days.

Putin's surprise visit to Crimea was his first to the peninsula since he sent troops to Ukraine on February 24 last year, apart from when he drove across the bridge linking the territory to mainland Russia last December.

He was shown visiting the Black Sea port city of Sevastopol, accompanied by the local Moscow-appointed governor Mikhail Razvozhayev, according to images broadcast by Russian state TV.

Razvozhayev said on the messaging app Telegram that Putin had been expected to take part in the opening of a children's art school by video link.

“But Vladimir Vladimirovich came in person. Himself. Behind the wheel. Because on such a historic day, the president is always with Sevastopol and the people of Sevastopol,” he said.

Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 following a referendum that was not recognised by Kyiv and the international community.

Speaking at the Davos forum in January, President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukraine aimed to take back Crimea, “our land”. Moscow has refused to include it in possible peace talks.

Putin’s visit came a day after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant against him over the “deportation” of Ukrainian children.

More than 16,000 Ukrainian children have been deported to Russia since the start of the conflict last year, according to Kyiv, with many allegedly placed in institutions and foster homes.

ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan told AFP Friday that Putin was now liable for arrest if he set foot in any of the court’s more than 120 member states.

The 70-year-old Russian leader has yet to publicly comment on the warrant.

But the ICC move triggered a wave of condemnation from Moscow, which dismissed the orders as “void”.

Russia is not a party to the ICC so it was unclear if or how Putin could ever end up in the dock.

The Hague-based court’s shock decision also came ahead of the Moscow visit from Chinese leader Xi Jinping to sign accords ushering in a new era of ties.

Xi will be in Russia from Monday to Wednesday.

China, a major Russian ally, has sought to position itself as a neutral party, urging Moscow and Kyiv to resolve the conflict through negotiations.

In a 12-point position paper on the conflict last month, China called for dialogue and respect for all countries’ territorial sovereignty.

But Western leaders have repeatedly criticised Beijing for failing to condemn Russia’s offensive, accusing it of providing Moscow with diplomatic cover for its assault.

Ukraine’s and China’s foreign ministers held a telephone call Thursday, in which China’s Qin Gang urged Kyiv and Moscow to restart peace talks “as soon as possible”.

His Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba said the call included discussion of “the significance of the principle of territorial integrity”, without giving details.

Last autumn, the Kremlin announced the annexation of four Ukrainian territories, Donetsk, Lugansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, despite not controlling them completely.

In Ankara, Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the two sides have agreed to extend the deal that has allowed Kyiv, a major grain exporter, to resume exports.

But there was disagreement over the terms.

Ukraine’s infrastructure minister said the deal had been extended for 120 days, but a spokeswoman for Russia’s foreign ministry said Moscow had agreed to a 60-day extension.

Ukraine’s Black Sea ports were blocked by warships after Russia sent in troops in February 2022.

A deal brokered by Turkey and the United Nations in July 2022 — and signed by Kyiv and Moscow — had allowed for the safe passage of exports. It was extended for 120 days in November.

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