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Top British Diplomat: ‘Russia Must Return Crimea To Ukraine’

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Britain's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond

Britain's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond

Britain’s top diplomat says Russia "must return Crimea to Ukraine," calling the Kremlin’s forcible annexation of the Black Sea peninsula last year "completely unacceptable."

"The annexation of Crimea was illegal and illegitimate in March 2014, and remains illegal and illegitimate in March 2015," British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in March 22 comments posted on the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s website.

Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine after sending troops there and staging a secession referendum on March 16, 2014, that was declared illegal in an overwhelming vote in the UN.

Hammond called the referendum a "sham" and a "fig leaf" for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s "land grab."

"This behavior threatens international security and has grave implications for the legal order that protects the integrity and sovereignty of all states," Hammond said.

Hammond’s comments came a day after the one-year anniversary of Russia’s formal takeover of Crimea.

"Since the illegal annexation, political freedom has [been] reduced and those who have dared to speak out have been threatened and subjected to violence," he said.

Hammond added that "human rights abuses in Crimea are particularly affecting ethnic minorities, with over 100 raids on Crimean Tatar homes reported" over the past year.

Crimea's annexation and the subsequent Moscow-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine prompted the West to impose sanctions on Russia.

Aleksei Pushkov, the hard-line chairman of the Russian State Duma’s International Affairs Committee, responded on Twitter by saying that "Crimea has a lot more right to the status of Russian territory than the Falkland Islands do to having the status of Britain's territory."

Britain has held the Falkland Islands, known in Argentina as the Malvinas, since 1833 and fought a war against Argentina over the isles in 1982.

Britain has said the people of the Falkland Islands are British citizens "out of choice.”

"London should have a break and have a Twix," Pushkov wrote, a reference to an ad campaign for a popular chocolate bar.

He added: "All Western polls conducted in Crimea indicate that an absolute majority of Crimean residents support reintegration with Russia."

Putin said on March 18 that the annexation was necessary to protect ethnic Russians in Crimea and reclaim Russia’s "historic roots."

With reporting by Interfax