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Ukraine agrees to crisis talks with rebels and Russia

Ukraine's embattled new leader agreed on Friday to immediate crisis talks with rebel commanders and Russia aimed at stemming the bloodshed that has threatened his country's survival and ruptured East-West ties.

KIEV: Ukraine's embattled new leader agreed on Friday to immediate crisis talks with rebel commanders and Russia aimed at stemming the bloodshed that has threatened his country's survival and ruptured East-West ties.

Clashes in the economically-vital border regions of Lugansk and Donetsk have picked up with renewed vigour since Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko tore up a 10-day ceasefire earlier this week.

His decision on Monday was immediately followed by the launch of a "massive" offensive by Kiev that led President Vladimir Putin to warn that Russia has the right to protect its compatriots in Ukraine.

The head of Ukraine's national security and defence council said government forces had regained control over 23 of the conflict zone's 36 local regions. But the military also reported the loss of nine soldiers in the latest overnight exchanges of mortar fire.

The uprising was sparked by the February ouster of a pro-Kremlin administration and fuelled by Russia's subsequent seizure of Crimea. Nearly three months of guerrilla warfare has killed more than 460 people and left Western leaders frustrated by repeated mediation failures.

But the ongoing low-scale warfare on the European Union's eastern frontier has also unified the West in its biggest pushback to date against Putin's seeming attempt to reassert command over former Soviet lands.

Russia now faces the threat of devastating economic sanctions should Putin fail to explicitly order the militias to lay down their arms.

France and Germany -- still hoping to avoid new punitive steps that would damage their own economies -- have spearheaded efforts to set up new European-mediated discussions that would bring Poroshenko's envoys into rare contact with the rebel command.

US President Barack Obama and British Foreign Secretary William Hague both pressed Putin on Thursday to make sure the separatists attend the next meeting.

Poroshenko's decision to propose the next discussions for Saturday followed yet another telephone exchange with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande.

The Ukrainian leader then told EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton that he had "proposed a place and time for the meeting and is waiting the other party's confirmation."

Kiev has balked at the idea of holding another round-table in rebel-held Donetsk -- a location in which Moscow carries widespread influence.

A source at the Organisation and Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) -- a Vienna-based body first formed to preserve peace in the Cold War era and now leading the nascent peace talks -- said Donetsk remained the most likely venue for the so-called Contact Group discussion.

But the number two man in the Donetsk rebel cabinet told Interfax that he had been told that Kiev had rejected the city for security reasons and was instead proposing the Belarus capital Minsk.

The United States has preferred not to play a direct role in the negotiations this time around after its decision to send senior diplomats during the winter protests in Kiev enraged the Kremlin.

Obama has had regular phone calls with European heads of state and Putin himself that underscored his concern about Russia's expansionist threat, but Washington's long-distance approach has done little to appease Moscow.

"The United States believes that it won the Cold War and that Russia -- a successor to the Soviet Union -- lost," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov told Moscow's Kommersant daily.

"And from this it concludes that Moscow must obey and conduct itself in international affairs... as a junior partner."

Poroshenko's security worries have been compounded by headaches over an imploding economy and Russia's decision in June to cut off gas supplies over disputed debts.

Ukraine is hoping to wean itself off its historic reliance on fuel from Russia. The finance ministry on Thursday published an eight-point blueprint on switching homes and heavy industry away from natural gas.

The long-term plan includes a greater reliance on coal and construction of new plants for converting cheaper liquified natural gas imports from the United States.

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