LUXEMBOURG - European Union foreign ministers formally agreed yesterday to prolong to January next year damaging economic sanctions against Russia to ensure it fully implements Ukraine peace accords, officials said.
"EU has extended economic sanctions against Russia until Jan 31, 2016, with a view to complete implementation of (the) Minsk agreement," EU spokesman Maja Kocijancic said in a tweet.
The 28-nation bloc hit Russia's banking, oil and defence sectors with punitive measures after Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down in July last year over territory held by pro-Moscow rebels.
Up to that point, many EU members had been reluctant to adopt full-scale economic sanctions, agreeing only to travel bans and asset freezes against Russian and Ukrainian figures.
Those reservations remain but as the crisis has deepened, the EU has stuck with the tougher sanctions. It has also warned, alongside the United States, that more could follow unless Moscow withdraws support for the rebels and uses its influence with them to implement a ceasefire accord signed in the Belarus capital Minsk in February.
In March, EU leaders agreed in principle to roll the sanctions over by linking them directly to the Minsk accord, which runs to December this year.
The ceasefire has largely held, but Kiev and the rebels swop charges daily over breaches, and observers reported a sharp rise in fighting earlier this month in a conflict which has claimed more than 6,500 lives and destroyed much of eastern Ukraine.
The foreign ministers of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia are due to meet in Paris today to review the situation.
Nato head Jens Stoltenberg welcomed the EU decision, stressing how important it was that Russia face the consequences of its actions. "Sanctions are a strong signal and clear message that it has consequences when a country behaves like Russia has in Ukraine," Mr Stoltenberg said.
Russia meanwhile expressed disappointment, blaming partisan EU groups for the decision.
"We are deeply disappointed that the opinion of the Russophobic lobby, which pushed through the decision to prolong illegal restrictions, once again dominated in the EU," the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.
The decision was "guaranteed to cause hundreds of thousands of Europeans to lose their jobs," it said, focusing on a sore point in the bloc. It also described as "cynical" the fact that the decision was taken on June 22 - the same day that Nazi Germany launched its invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.