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Russia ends military drills ahead of Ukraine vote

Russia said Monday it had ordered the end of military exercises near its border with Ukraine, just days ahead of a crucial presidential vote aimed at bringing the country out of crisis.

MOSCOW: Russia said Monday it had ordered the end of military exercises near its border with Ukraine, just days ahead of a crucial presidential vote aimed at bringing the country out of crisis.

In a move that could ease tensions, President Vladimir Putin's office said he had ordered thousands of Russian troops deployed in border regions to return to barracks after the end of spring exercises.

But the Kremlin said Putin had also demanded that Ukraine's pro-Western government halt its military operation against rebels in the country's east and withdraw its troops.

His remarks came amid continued fighting in eastern Ukraine, with at least one soldier reported killed in a pre-dawn attack near the flashpoint rebel town of Slavyansk.

"Due to the end of the planned spring training of troops that included their movement to Rostov, Belgorod, and Bryansk regions, the Russian president ordered... troops participating in the drills to return to their permanent bases," the Kremlin said in a statement after a meeting of the country's Security Council.

The statement also called for an "immediate end" to the offensive by Ukrainian troops in the east -- describing it as a "punitive operation" against the separatists -- and their withdrawal.

The presence of the Russian troops near the border had raised deep concerns after Russia's annexation of Crimea in March and the uprising by well-armed pro-Moscow rebels in Ukraine's eastern coal and steel heartland.

An estimated 40,000 Russian soldiers had been deployed, but Putin said earlier this month that they had been moved away from the border to regional bases to continue planned training exercises.

At the time both Washington and NATO said they had seen no evidence of the withdrawal.

Under pressure from US and European Union sanctions, Moscow has recently moved to reduce tensions with Ukraine after months of crisis that sent relations with the West to their lowest point since the Cold War.

After initially dismissing Sunday's presidential vote -- called after February's ouster of Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych -- Putin recently said it was a step in the right direction.

Preparations were continuing Monday for the vote, seen by many in the West as the only way to end a crisis that began with pro-EU protests in Kiev but spiralled into a wider confrontation.

It remains unclear how much credibility the vote will have, especially as fighting continues between Ukrainian troops and rebels who have grabbed over a dozen towns and declared sovereignty in the industrial hubs of Donetsk and Lugansk.

The Ukrainian defence ministry said one soldier was killed and three others injured when rebels staked out in a kindergarten shelled a military checkpoint near Slavyansk on Monday.

"The terrorists, acting in their usual cynical and insidious manner, launched the attack from a kindergarten near the railway station," it said in a statement. "They wanted to provoke the servicemen into trying to destroy the kindergarten."

Ukraine's military launched its offensive against the rebels in mid-April but has failed to oust them from their strongholds and suffered a number of humiliating setbacks.

Violence has flared almost nightly in various hotspots across the east, where the United Nations says the crisis has already cost more than 120 lives.

Putin on Monday also praised "the first contacts between Kiev and supporters of federalisation" during weekend talks in the eastern city of Kharkiv.

Moscow has demanded authorities in Kiev engage with separatists under a roadmap drawn up by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), an East-West security body.

Saturday's talks involved a broad range of figures, including pro-Russians, but no separatist leaders after Kiev refused to invite what they describe as "terrorists" to the table.

Washington and its allies have threatened further sanctions if Russia disrupts Sunday's vote, which will see around 20 hopefuls vying for the country's top post.

The clear front-runner is Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire chocolate baron who was once a minister in the Yanukovych regime but became the chief financier of the so-called Maidan protests against his rule.

Opinion polls give him around 34 per cent of the vote, far ahead of the deeply divisive former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the one-time darling of the 2004 Orange Revolution who was released from jail in February.

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