Putin orders troops near Ukraine to return home

Published on NewsOK Modified: May 19, 2014 at 2:42 pm •  Published: May 19, 2014
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Pro-Russia rebels, who have seized government buildings in eastern Ukraine and fought government troops, have declared two sprawling provinces independent and vowed to block the election. Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of fomenting the mutiny. Russia denies this.

Facing Western pressure, Putin supported a peace plan for settling the crisis, which was brokered by the Swiss chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Putin, who earlier had urged Ukraine to postpone the election, has now softened his stance.

The OSCE road map aims to halt the violence and de-escalate tensions by offering an amnesty for those involved in the unrest and urging talks on decentralization and the status of the Russian language. The OSCE also has sent an observer mission for the election.

The first round tables under the plan were held in Ukraine last week, but the government refused to invite representatives of the rebels in the east, whom it has dubbed "separatists" and "terrorists." A third meeting is set for Wednesday.

Even though the Russian Foreign Ministry has criticized the round tables for failing to include the government's foes, Putin welcomed them as an attempt to establish dialogue. In a telephone conversation Monday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the two leaders expressed hope that the dialogue would continue, the Kremlin said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov even sounded warmer regarding the round tables, calling them a "step in the right direction."

Putin and Lavrov urged Ukrainian authorities to end immediately the military operation in eastern Ukraine, where fighting continued. Pro-Russia insurgents fired on a Ukrainian army checkpoint near a TV tower outside the city of Slovyansk, killing one soldier and wounding three, Ukraine's Defense Ministry said.

Associated Press journalists also witnessed mortar fire hitting the village of Andriyivka, just outside Slovyansk. While it was impossible to confirm who fired the mortars, they appeared to come from the Ukrainian government troops' positions. The shelling damaged a gas main running across a field and onto residents' lands. The pipeline caught fire, but no residents were hurt.

In Donetsk, the capital of one of the regions that pro-Russian insurgents declared independent last week, masked gunmen seized the office of the local branch of Ukrainian Railways and installed their man as its new chief. The company told the AP the attackers disrupted freight train traffic, stranding about 4,000 rail cars in the industrial region.

Amid the tensions, Kiev and Moscow traded accusations over two Russian journalists who were arrested Sunday by Ukrainian forces near Slovyansk.

The Ukrainian military said the two men, who had press accreditation with Life News, a Kremlin-connected TV channel, were with pro-Russian insurgents and were filming preparations for an attack outside Slovyansk. Russia has protested the arrest and asked the OSCE to assist in their release.

OSCE media freedom representative Dunja Mijatovic urged Ukraine to release the journalists and also condemned other recent cases of harassment of journalists by both sides in Ukraine.

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Alexander Zemlianichhenko in Slovyansk, Ukraine; Nataliya Vasilyeva in Kiev; Yuras Karmanau in Donetsk; and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.