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Kerry to meet Ukrainian opposition leaders in Germany

In a major show of support for pro-democracy protesters in Ukraine, US Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with top opposition leaders for the first time in Germany, senior US officials said Thursday.

WASHINGTON: In a major show of support for pro-democracy protesters in Ukraine, US Secretary of State John Kerry will meet top opposition leaders for the first time this weekend, senior US officials said Thursday.

On the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, Kerry will "have an opportunity to have his first meeting with the major figures in the Ukrainian opposition" on Saturday, a senior State Department official said.

The officials were speaking just before Kerry's plane took off from Andrews Air Force base in Virginia for Berlin, where he was to meet Chancellor Angela Merkel and his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

He will spend only a few hours in Berlin before flying to Munich later Friday for the annual security conference, where some 20 heads of state and government and 50 foreign and defence ministers will discuss global hotspots and conflicts.

Among the Ukrainian opposition leaders slated to hold talks with Kerry are UDAR (Punch) party leader and former boxing world champion Vitali Klitschko and opposition politician Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

"Our understanding is that all the major leaders are coming because they want to talk to the international community about the way forward as they see it and the support that they need," the State Department official said.

Kerry is also expected to meet Ukraine's Eurovision Song Contest pop star winner Ruslana, who has been encouraging the protesters on Independence Square over the past weeks with free performances.

"We've been cautiously optimistic that this dialogue between the government and the opposition is beginning to bear fruit," the official, who asked not to be named, told reporters on a conference call.

"There's the question of whether they can move on to form a government of national unity. So they're coming to Munich in the middle of this negotiating process on what the political compact might look like going forward."

Representatives of the Ukrainian government were also expected to attend the Munich talks, including Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara.

The Ukrainian opposition will have the chance to meet a number of international stakeholders in the political crisis, triggered when President Viktor Yanukovych ditched plans to sign an association agreement with the EU and struck a multibillion-dollar deal instead with former Soviet master Russia.

"Enormous amount of progress"

State Department officials said Kerry had also wanted to meet Merkel as she begins her new term in office at the helm of one of America's most important European allies.

Relations soured last year amid revelations released by former CIA contractor Edward Snowden that US intelligence agencies had eavesdropped on Merkel's phone.

But Washington feels it has made "an enormous amount of progress in working through these issues, not only with our German allies, but with other allies," the State Department official said.

"Those discussions obviously will continue and I expect that the path forward will be one of the subjects that the secretary speaks to both Foreign Minister Steinmeier and Chancellor Merkel about," the official said.

"But we have a very broad and deep agenda and we want not only to continue to resolve that issue but more broadly to talk about all the things we do together."

Kerry, and US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, are both slated to address the Munich conference, and will then hold a series of meetings.

Topping the agenda will be the conflict in Syria and the crisis caused after Afghan President Hamid Karzai refused to sign a security pact to chart a path for the presence of US troops after international forces withdraw from Afghanistan later this year.

Late Friday, Kerry, the top US diplomat, will hold talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, focusing on both the conflict in Syria and the Middle East peace process.

Kerry will also meet for trilateral talks with UN chief Ban Ki-moon and special UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who will fly to Munich fresh from the first round of Syrian peace talks bringing together the opposition and the regime in Geneva.

"Part of the purpose is to talk about the status of the discussions, what's happening on the ground, planning for the next round, which will happen in the coming weeks," another State Department official said.

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