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EU's Barroso offers Putin opening on Ukraine

European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday he was willing to include Moscow in discussions with Kiev on a planned EU tie-up that sparked a major crisis in Ukraine.

BRUSSELS: European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday he was willing to include Moscow in discussions with Kiev on a planned EU tie-up that sparked a major crisis in Ukraine.

Barroso made the offer in a telephone conversation with Putin weeks before the European Union is due to sign an association accord and free trade pact with the former Soviet state.

The ditching of the accord in November by Ukraine's pro-Russian former president Viktor Yanukovych sparked protests which led to his ouster, setting off the current crisis as Moscow refused to let the former Soviet republic side with the West.

Brussels had previously rejected Putin's request that the EU, Russia and Ukraine should sit down together to discuss the accord.

But a Commission statement said that "as a way to dispel any concerns" Russia might have, Barroso had offered Putin the chance to hold "political level consultations, associating Ukraine".

This "was agreed by President Putin," the statement said, adding that Barroso had raised this possibility with Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko on Thursday.

A Kremlin statement said Putin and Barroso had agreed there would be "discussions between Russia, the European Union and Ukraine at expert and ministerial level in the context of the planned signing of the EU-Ukraine association accord".

Commission sources said this was a "significant and important" development in light of Putin's exchanges with Poroshenko, reflecting a "new climate" which it was hoped would help calm the crisis.

Nonetheless, the Commission said Barroso had urged Moscow to act to defuse the crisis in Ukraine, help disarm pro-Moscow rebel groups and halt the flow of arms and fighters into Ukraine.

Barroso also raised Russia's gas supply dispute with Ukraine, ahead of a deadline on Monday when Russian giant Gazprom has said it will close the taps unless Kiev pays outstanding bills and accepts a new payment framework.

"Barroso expressed the hope that both sides can make additional efforts to reach a lasting agreement," the statement said.

The last round of EU-brokered gas talks broke up on Wednesday without an accord, with Ukraine and Russia trading barbs over who was at fault.

Ukraine Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said earlier on Friday that he had told officials to begin implementing a plan for reduced energy use on the expectation Gazprom would make good on its threat Monday.

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