German Chancellor Angela Merkel is surrounded by photographers at the beginning of her annual summer press conference at the Bundespressekonferenz in Berlin, Germany, Friday, July 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

The Latest: Merkel: US and Russian meetings should be normal

July 20, 2018 - 5:28 am

MOSCOW (AP) — The Latest on the meeting earlier this week between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump (all times local):

1:25 p.m.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel says that meetings between U.S. and Russian presidents should become "normal" again.

Merkel's comments Friday came after President Donald Trump invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to the White House. Earlier this week, the two had a meeting in Finland.

Merkel said that "in principle it's always good for everyone when there are talks, particularly when there are talks between these two countries."

She said: "I think it must once again become normal for Russian and American presidents to meet."

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11:45 a.m.

The Russian government is pushing for the release of a gun rights activist accused of being a covert agent in the U.S., calling her arrest a "farce."

The Russian ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov, told a conference in Moscow that the accusations against Maria Butina are groundless and that American authorities tried to "break her" and refused her consular visits for the first few days after her arrest.

Russian Embassy representatives visited Butina in Washington on Thursday, and said in a statement that she is in good health but "has difficulties in adapting to prison conditions."

Antonov said Moscow is working to return her to Russia. The Russian Foreign Ministry started an online campaign to "Free Maria Butina."

U.S. federal prosecutors accused Butina this week of being a covert Russian agent and working to infiltrate U.S. political organizations, including the National Rifle Association, before and after Donald Trump's election as president.

Butina, 29, denies wrongdoing.

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11:30 a.m.

Russia's ambassador to the United States says that Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump discussed a possible referendum in eastern Ukraine.

Anatoly Antonov told a conference in Moscow that "this issue was discussed" and that Putin made "concrete proposals" to Trump on finding solutions to the Ukraine conflict. Antonov would not give further details of what was discussed at the Helsinki summit about Ukraine.

Trump tweeted that the two men discussed Ukraine but has not mentioned a referendum or revealed specifics of the Ukraine discussions.

The U.S. and Russia have been on opposing sides of the conflict in Ukraine, unleashed after a popular uprising against a pro-Russian president and Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Ukraine and European powers are unlikely to support a referendum in the Donbass region, where pro-Russian separatists hold sway.

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11:15 a.m.

Russia's ambassador to the U.S. says Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump should continue to have direct contact after their summit this week.

Speaking Friday in Moscow, Anatoly Antonov did not directly respond to Trump's proposal to invite Putin to Washington later this year.

He called Monday's summit in Helsinki a "key event" in international politics and laughed off suggestions that the two men made any "secret deals."

Concerns have been raised in the U.S. about what the two presidents discussed at their meeting. Limited details have emerged, but Antonov said discussions included ways to cooperate on arms control and Iran's nuclear activities. He said Russian diplomats will work with American counterparts to "fulfill the agreements reached."

He also reiterated denials of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

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