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Ukraine rebels mull Putin's referendum U-turn

08 May 2014, 13:10

Donetsk - Pro-Russian rebels fighting in eastern Ukraine were on Thursday weighing whether to postpone a vote on independence, as urged by President Vladimir Putin to dial down a crisis that threatened to plunge the country into civil war.

Self-proclaimed rebel leaders in the flashpoint towns of Slavyansk and Donetsk were poised to brief reporters after Putin said the referendums planned for Sunday should be put off to allow negotiations to take place.

In a stunning about-turn, Putin late on Wednesday also welcomed the holding of a presidential election in Ukraine on 25 May - something the Kremlin had dismissed as "absurd" only two days previously.

But he predicated that on reforms giving Russian speakers in Ukraine's east more autonomy under the ex-Soviet republic's constitution.

Putin also said his troops had withdrawn from the border with Ukraine, although Nato and the United States said they had seen no sign of that.

Putin's proposals offered the first glimmer of hope in weeks that the seemingly inexorable decline into war might be averted, but they sparked mixed reactions from a sceptical West.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier welcomed the "constructive tone" of Putin's comments, which came after the Kremlin strongman met with Swiss President and OSCE chief Didier Burkhalter. The Russian stockmarket and ruble soared after weeks of losses.

However, Kiev and Washington were much more downbeat about Putin's proposals. Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk accused Putin of "talking through his hat" about the independence referendums, which he said were invalid under the country's constitution to begin with.

'No sign of goodwill'

The Ukrainian foreign ministry issued a statement on Thursday saying any plebiscite in Ukraine without consultation with the Kiev authorities was "senseless and unacceptable".

"Any so-called 'terrorist referendums' in the east of our country are illegal by definition. Thus, an appeal to 'postpone' them is just a mockery and by no means a sign of goodwill," said Kiev.

While the government wants to have a "full-scale national dialogue... a dialogue with terrorists is impermissible and unconceivable," the ministry said.

The White House was also guarded in its response. Deputy spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Air Force One that there was "to date... no evidence that such a withdrawal [of troops] has taken place".

As a small crowd gathered outside Donetsk town hall, occupied by rebels for several weeks, pensioner Alla Nikolaeva admitted Putin's announcement had come as a "surprise" but aimed angry defiance at the government in Kiev.

"We can never be under the control of the Kiev junta - they've killed so many of our people that we can never forget that."

Nearby, a woman handed out the first and only edition of the separatist Voice of the Republic newspaper (dated May 5).

Front page headline: "Why we need the May 11 referendum."

 'Halt military operations'

Putin's spokesman followed the surprise statement by fleshing out measures to ease tensions, urging Kiev to stop its military operations to flush out rebels controlling more than a dozen towns and cities in eastern Ukraine.

If Ukraine now halted its military offensive and started dialogue, "then this can lead Ukraine out of a situation that at this stage is growing only worse," the spokesman said.

Officials have said 14 troops have been killed, 66 wounded and three helicopter gunships lost in the operation against the rebels, who are estimated to have lost more than 30 fighters.

The majority of the fighting has taken place around the town of Slavyansk, where explosions and small-arms fire could still be heard overnight, according to an AFP reporter there.

Clashes and a resulting inferno in the southern port city of Odessa last week claimed another 42 lives, most of them pro-Russian activists, pushing the death toll over the past week to nearly 90.

The violence has prompted many Western politicians to warn that the country of 46 million people was slipping towards a civil war that would imperil the peace in Europe.

The unrest also shattered a peace deal struck in Geneva on April 17 that called for the insurgents to lay down their arms.

 'Third-tier sanctions'

As the crisis plunged East-West relations to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War, US President Barack Obama has vowed to step up his sanctions regime to hit whole areas of the recession-threatened Russian economy.

On a Wednesday trip to Kiev to shore up support for the Western-backed government there, Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague said London would push "very strongly" for stepped-up sanctions at a European Union meeting early next week.

Speaking before Putin's shock announcement, Hague accused Russia of deploying covert fighters and "enormous propaganda" as part of "unacceptable pressure" to block the May 25 poll.

And while there were tentative signs of a de-escalation in the months-long crisis, there were fears that the country could still erupt in fresh violence on Friday when both Ukraine and Russia celebrate the Soviet victory in World War II.

While Putin plans to mark the occasion with a show of patriotic fervour and military might on Red Square, Ukraine is holding muted celebrations amid tight security for fears of "provocation" from pro-Russian militants.



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