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EU urges Russia to back Ukraine peace plan

The European Union warned Russia on Monday to back Ukraine's peace plan as the best way to end months of escalating crisis, saying it wanted a clear answer from Moscow "within days".

LUXEMBOURG: The European Union warned Russia on Monday to back Ukraine's peace plan as the best way to end months of escalating crisis, saying it wanted a clear answer from Moscow "within days".

As Ukraine's new President Petro Poroshenko prepares to sign a deal with the EU on Friday that lies at the heart of the crisis with Russia, he sought renewed help from Western allies to end the uprising raging in his country's east despite a unilateral ceasefire.

Poroshenko's plan centres on talks with representatives from the industrial east, but not leaders of the pro-Russian rebellion there -- a condition President Vladimir Putin says will not help end the fighting.

The Russian leader has both come out in support of Poroshenko's peace efforts and ordered fresh military exercises across a vast swathe of central Russia -- leaving European leaders struggling to decipher his intentions.

Meeting in Luxembourg, EU foreign ministers warned it was crucial that Putin take this "major chance" for peace.

"This week must be dedicated to bringing about a de-escalation of the conflict. That is the priority," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.

"We have called on Russia to get on board and that has to happen in the next few days," Fabius said, adding there "were contradictory signs" of Moscow's intentions.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague was blunter, noting that preparatory work on tougher EU sanctions targeting specific sectors of the Russian economy was already done.

"By Friday, we will be able to see how Russia is responding," Hague said. "We are ready to take those wider sanctions and no one in Moscow should be in any doubt about that."

The EU has steadily expanded sanctions against Russians and Ukrainians for their role in the crisis, hitting them with asset freezes and travel bans, but has so far stopped short of these broader punitive measures.

Washington has pressed for more action and the EU foreign ministers did agree on Monday to ban imports from Crimea, reiterating that Brussels would never recognise Russia's "illegal" annexation of Ukraine territory in March.

Ukraine Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, invited to brief the ministers on Kiev's peace plan, said the priority was to make it work, by maintaining "the pressure with every option which is on the table."

Russia bitterly opposes a wide-ranging EU association agreement with Kiev, to be signed at a summit at the end of the week at the same time as similar pacts with Georgia and Moldova.

The historic political and trade pact is seen by Moscow as a Western intrusion into its ex-Soviet sphere of influence.

On the ground meanwhile, rebel commanders ignored Poroshenko's overtures.

AFP reporters near the Russian border saw rebels push back and in some cases encircle government soldiers dispatched by Poroshenko to stem the flow of weapons and gunmen into the conflict zone.

"Their forces tried to blitz us (on Friday) but things turned out very differently," a 54-year-old rebel commander named Oleksandr said in Izvarini, a small town about 50 kilometres (30 miles) east of the separatist stronghold of Lugansk.

"They are surrounded," he claimed. "They have no food and water... and no chance to escape."

In a furious round of telephone diplomacy, Poroshenko told Merkel on Sunday of more than 20 attacks at the weekend, and that her involvement and that of other world leaders is "critically important to a settlement of the conflict in eastern Ukraine."

US Vice-President Joe Biden told Poroshenko that Washington was "working closely with its G7 partners to prepare further economic sanctions against Russia" if it did not halt the flow of arms and militants across the border.

The EU foreign ministers additionally called on Putin to revoke parliamentary authority granted early this year to intervene militarily in Ukraine.

Many are still trying to guess Putin's true goals in what one analyst in Moscow called the Kremlin's "cat and mouse game" with the West.

Is Putin seeking a negotiated deal to secure Russian interests or is he trying to create facts on the ground, like the annexation of Crimea, that cannot be reversed?

Russia's actions present "a bit of a mixed picture," one EU diplomat said.

Some analysts believe Putin is still smarting from the loss of an ally in Kiev who could have brought Ukraine into a new alliance of post-Soviet nations being assembled by the Kremlin.

Putin accordingly plans to keep Poroshenko's government off balance to ensure he can maintain Russian influence in eastern Ukraine.

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