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Ukraine boosts security for vote as US warns Russia

The United States piled the pressure on Russia over its actions in Ukraine, where the authorities are mobilising tens of thousands of police for a presidential vote threatened by the bloody insurgency gripping the east.

KIEV: The United States piled the pressure on Russia on Wednesday over its actions in Ukraine, where the authorities are mobilising tens of thousands of police for a presidential vote threatened by the bloody insurgency gripping the east.

Vice President Joe Biden threatened further sanctions on Moscow if it disrupts Sunday's presidential ballot, seen as crucial to prevent all-out civil war on Europe's doorstep.

But just days ahead of the vote, violence appears to have tapered off in the east, where the Ukrainian army has been battling for almost six weeks to crush the pro-Moscow rebellion.

The people of the east "are starting to understand that the separatist terrorists are leading the region to the abyss," interim President Oleksandr Turchynov said on his first visit to the flashpoint city of Slavyansk.

In a key step demanded by the West to ease tensions, Russia said its troops were packing up and moving away from the Ukrainian border, although Washington and NATO insist they have seen no sign of any pullback.

"If Russia undermines these elections on Sunday, we must remain resolute in imposing greater costs," Biden told reporters in Romania.

"All countries should use their influence to promote a stable environment for Ukrainian citizens to cast their ballots freely."

Ukraine said it will deploy 55,000 police and 20,000 volunteers to try to ensure security on polling day.

Biden also praised Kiev's pro-Western government for taking "steps to engage Ukrainians, from all parts of that country, in the east and the south, on issues of constitutional reform".

In tandem with a military offensive against the rebels now in control of swathes of the eastern coal and steel belt, the government Wednesday held another round of national unity talks under a Europe-backed peace plan.

The OSCE-sponsored roadmap aims to unite a country now fighting for its very survival after the ouster of a Kremlin-backed government in February exposed festering tensions between Russian speakers in the east and more nationalist pro-Europeans.

Two previous round-table sessions failed to make any progress, with the new government in Kiev still refusing to invite the separatists.

However, Ukraine's parliament has agreed to consider a conciliatory measure that would grant more powers to the regions and ensure that the right to speak Russian in public institutions is enshrined in the constitution - among key demands of the rebels.

Some separatist leaders are pushing for the eastern regions to become part of Russia, emboldened by Moscow's annexation of the Black Sea Crimean peninsula in March.

Fearful of what further territorial ambitions President Vladimir Putin may have for ex-Soviet satellites, the United States has deployed troops to Poland and the Baltics.

The Pentagon also announced on Tuesday it was sending in a guided missile cruiser to the Black Sea, saying there were still "tens of thousands" of Russian troops near Ukraine.

And NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen also said there was no "firm evidence" of a pullback, noting it was the third time Putin had made such an announcement.

He said a real pullout would be an "extremely important step to de-escalation" of the crisis and voiced hope Sunday's election would create more political stability.

Moscow said on Wednesday its military units have been dismantling their field camps neighbouring Ukraine and loading up their equipment to head back to their permanent bases.

The front-runner, chocolate baron Petro Poroshenko, has pledged to find a negotiated solution to the crisis and rebuild ties with Ukraine's former masters in Moscow.

With the country at risk of collapse both politically and economically, the new leader will also have the daunting task of negotiating with Russia to ensure continued vital supplies.

The United Nations (UN) estimates around 130 people have died since the insurgency erupted last month in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, where rebels declared sovereignty in defiance of Kiev and the West.

But in a move that some say could turn the tide in favour of Kiev, Ukraine's richest man Rinat Akhmetov has condemned the rebellion in his industrial powerbase, saying "people are tired of living in fear and terror."

Meanwhile, Ukrainian authorities confirmed they were holding a British journalist who a Russian television channel said had gone missing while covering the rebellion.

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