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Russia says Ukraine passport order complies with international law

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MOSCOW, Feb 20 (Reuters) - Russia said on Monday President Vladimir Putin's decision to recognise passports issued by separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine complied with international law, after the move drew criticism from France and Germany.

Putin on Saturday issued an order for Russian authorities to recognise identity documents, diplomas, birth and marriage certificates and vehicle registration plates issued in the separatist-held regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in east Ukraine.

The Kremlin said the legislation would be in place until a "political settlement of the situation" in these regions was reached, based on a peace deal stuck between the rebels and Kiev in Minsk in 2015.

"The Russian Federation is working, first and foremost, on humanitarian grounds," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its website.

"The order fully complies with international law, which does not prohibit the recognition of documents needed to implement the rights and freedoms granted by the authorities which are not internationally recognised."

Ukrainian authorities have denounced Putin's decision and say the order violates the Minsk peace process, criticisms echoed by France and Germany earlier on Monday.

A German government spokesman said the move was "a stark contradiction to all that was agreed in Minsk" and "totally unacceptable".

Fighting has recently escalated in the conflict between Ukrainian forces and the Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, refocusing global attention on a simmering conflict that has strained relations between Russia and the West.

The February 2015 Minsk peace agreement locked the two sides into a stalemate which has been broken periodically by sharp resurgences in fighting that Kiev and the Kremlin accuse each other of instigating.

The foreign ministers of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine met on Saturday in Munich and agreed to use their influence to implement a ceasefire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons from Monday in eastern Ukraine.

(Reporting by Jack Stubbs in Moscow, Joseph Nasr and Michael Nienaber in Berlin and Brian Love in Paris; Editing by Tom Heneghan)