The Hague (AFP) - A Dutch court ruled Wednesday that priceless Crimean art treasures loaned to an Amsterdam museum shortly before Russia annexed the peninsula in 2014 should go back to Ukraine.
Four Crimean museums launched a joint legal bid in November 2014 to force the Allard Pierson Museum to return the historic collection of archaeological artefacts, displayed in an exhibition titled: "The Crimea: Gold and Secrets from the Black Sea."
Kiev also demanded their return, and the Dutch judges ruled "that the objects must go to Ukraine, the artefacts' country of origin and cultural heritage," the court said in a statement posted online.
"The claim by Crimean museums that the artefacts are Crimean heritage, or belong to the Autonomous Republic of Crimea was not accepted by the judges, because neither are sovereign states," the Amsterdam regional court added.
The judges however "made no ruling as to the rightful owner of the collection," saying it was a question for Ukrainian courts once the artefacts had been returned.
The parties in the case now have three months to appeal, with the treasures remaining at the Allard Pierson Museum, the judges said.
Ukraine was ordered to pay the Allard Pierson 111,000 euros ($118,000) in temporary storage costs.
- Ukrainian 'victory'? -
Crimea was at the crossroads of ancient trade routes and the rich collection of items spanning the second century BC to the late medieval era was loaned to the Amsterdam museum less than a month before Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014.
Kiev says Russia illegally annexed the Black Sea territory, a month after Ukraine's Moscow-backed president was ousted in a pro-EU revolt.
It also accuses Moscow of backing the pro-Russian insurgency in Ukraine's industrial east in a conflict that has claimed nearly 10,000 lives since April 2014.
Ukranian officials welcomed the ruling, which they hailed as a wider victory.
"The decision of the Amsterdam district court means that not only Scythian gold is Ukrainian. Crimea is also Ukrainian," President Petro Poroshenko said on his Facebook page.
"Crimea is ours, period. This follows the decision of a European country's court. We look forward to other positive news from The Netherlands," he said.
"Scythian Gold is coming back home -- to Ukraine. I'm sure, it will also return to Ukrainian Crimea. Grateful to all members of our team," tweeted Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin.
But Moscow reacted with outrage.
"Unfortunately this decision is an example of the violation of the rights of cultural institutions and the destruction of the unity of museum collections," the Russian Culture Ministry said.
"It goes against not only the contracts' provisions but also blatantly violates the principles of inter-museum exchanges and the right of the people of Crimea to their own cultural heritage," it said in a statement on its website.
It said the Dutch court "ignored the principle of conservation of archaeological finds in close connection with the history and culture of the place they come from," saying "the museum items must return to Crimea where they were found and where they were kept for decades and studied by archaeologists."
Earlier this week both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande said they favoured extending EU sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine conflict.