Putin pulls troops from Ukrainian border and asks rebels to put off referendum
Russian President Vladimir Putin called on pro-Moscow separatists in Ukraine to postpone a vote on secession just five days before it was to be held, potentially pulling Ukraine back from the brink of dismemberment.
It was the first sign the Kremlin leader has given that he would not endorse a referendum planned for Sunday by pro-Russian rebels seeking independence for two provinces with 6.5 million people and around a third of Ukraine's industrial output.
In what appeared to be a breakthrough in the worst crisis between East and West since the Cold War, Putin also announced he was pulling Russian troops back from the Ukrainian border. Moscow has massed tens of thousands of troops on the frontier, proclaiming the right to invade Ukraine if Russian speakers were threatened.
"We call on the representatives of southeastern Ukraine, the supporters of the federalisation of the country, to postpone the referendum planned for May 11," Putin said.
He said this would create conditions for dialogue between the Ukrainian authorities in Kiev and the separatists, some of whom want greater autonomy while others demand secession.
"We're always being told that our forces on the Ukrainian border are a concern. We have withdrawn them. Today they are not on the Ukrainian border, they are in places where they conduct their regular tasks on training grounds," Putin said.
He spoke in Moscow after talks with the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who said the security and rights body would soon propose a "road map" to defuse the Ukraine crisis.
A pro-Russian separatist leader said the separatists would consider Putin's call to postpone their referendum at a meeting of their self-proclaimed People's Assembly tomorrow.