WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Sunday strongly condemned what it said was Russia’s detention at the weekend of the deputy leader of the main representative body of Crimean Tatars and at least 45 other members of the ethnic group.

A State Department statement said Nariman Dzhelyalov, deputy chairman of the Crimean Tatars’ Mejlis, was detained on Saturday by Russian occupation authorities in Crimea. It said at least 45 other Crimean Tatars had also been detained.

“We call on the Russian occupation authorities to release them immediately,” the statement said, calling it “the latest in a long line of politically motivated raids, detentions, and  punitive measures against  the Mejlis and its leadership.”

Russia’s Interfax news agency earlier quoted an unnamed “informed source” as saying that Dzhelyalov and four other Crimean residents had been detained in connection with a damaged gas pipeline in the village of Perevalnoye, on the highway from Simferopol towards Yalta.

Ukrainian Foreign Minster Dmytro Kuleba posted a tweet on Saturday saying Russia had “escalated terror in the occupied Crimea” by detaining five people, including Dzhelyalov.

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Washington has been Kyiv’s most powerful backer since Russia annexed Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine began. Kyiv says the fighting has killed 14,000 people in seven years.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Michael Perry)

Copyright 2021 Thomson Reuters.

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