Russian Sailors Leaving France Without Warship

French-built warship BPC Vladivostock, designed to strengthen Russia's ability to deploy troops, tanks and helicopter gunships, leaves the Saint Nazaire's harbor, for its test run on the open sea off coast of France. (AP Photo/David Vincent, File)

PARIS — Russian sailors are leaving a French Atlantic port without the controversial French-made warship they were supposed to sail away on.

France suspended the delivery of the ship to Russia "until further notice" last month because of the conflict in Ukraine. The ship was part of the biggest arms sale ever by a NATO country to the Kremlin, signed in 2009. Russia's actions in Ukraine have made the French government reconsider the billion-euro deal, even if it means paying Russia back.

About 400 Russian sailors have spent months training aboard the warship, a Mistral-class helicopter carrier called the Vladivostok. They were living aboard a Russian ship, the Smolny.

The Smolny began leaving the port of Saint-Nazaire on Thursday, according to an AP photographer watching the departure.

French authorities and the Russian Embassy wouldn't comment Thursday on the departure.

The Vladivostok remains in the port, empty and unused, pending a decision on its fate. It can carry 700 troops, 16 helicopter gunships and up to 50 armored vehicles.

The sailors were supposed to board the ship at the end of November and take it to Russia.

But President Francois Hollande has repeatedly said that conditions weren't met for a ship delivery, given continued violence in Ukraine. He still hasn't taken a definitive decision on the contract, worth 1.2 billion euros ($1.47 billion).

Russia has agreed to wait until February for a final decision, while France risks having to pay over 1 billion euros for not fulfilling the contract, according to a top French official and a Russian diplomat.

A second French-made ship, ironically named the Sevastopol, after a port on the Crimean Peninsula, was slated for delivery next year and is docked at Saint-Nazaire port for finishing touches.

Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March.

AP photographer Laetitia Notarianni contributed from Saint-Nazaire.

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