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Ukraine president offers talks with pro-Russian rebels

Ukraine's new Western-backed leader agreed on Sunday to dialogue with separatists not implicated in "murder and torture" as he laid out a peace plan that Russian President Vladimir Putin promised to back.

SIVERSK: Ukraine's new Western-backed leader agreed on Sunday to dialogue with separatists not implicated in "murder and torture" as he laid out a peace plan that Russian President Vladimir Putin
promised to back.

Petro Poroshenko's initiative follows his announcement on Friday of a week-long unilateral ceasefire in the government's 10-week campaign against pro-Russian rebels that has claimed more than 375 lives and displaced tens of thousands.

The hostilities raged on over the weekend despite Poroshenko's order as government forces used mortar fire to repel waves of raids by militias in the eastern rustbelt who rejected the terms of his pact.

"Both of my grandfathers were killed in World War II fighting the Nazis," said a rebel named Andriy as he prepared ammunition for a heavy machine-gun in his battle against what many separatists refer to as the "fascist" in power in Kiev today.

"I will continue their fight," the 31-year-old said. Ukraine's border guards reported two raids by the rebels in the eastern Lugansk region early on Sunday that resulted in no casualties.

The 48-year-old confectionery tycoon -- elected on May 25 in snap polls called after months of deadly pro-EU protests toppled Kiev's Kremlin-backed president in February -- said that a peaceful settlement was "our plan A".

"But those who are planning to use peaceful negotiations only to buy time and regroup their forces must know that we have a detailed plan B. I am not going to speak of it now because I believe that our peaceful plan will work out," he added in the 12-minute address.

Putin on Sunday vowed to stand behind Poroshenko's peace efforts as long as they led to "substantial dialogue" between the two sides.

"Russia will certainly support these intentions. But at the end of the day, the most important thing is a political process," Putin told reporters.

"It is important for dialogue between all warring parties to originate on the basis of this peace plan," Putin said in his most overt endorsement of the blueprint to date.

One top separatist leader had earlier said that Poroshenko's efforts were "meaningless" unless they included the complete withdrawal of state troops and recognition of the independence they proclaim last month.

Putin took the extra step on Saturday to call on "the conflicting parties to halt all military activities and sit down at the negotiating table" -- a comment that implied a degree of criticism for the rebels' continued attacks.

The Kremlin chief has been sending mixed signals to Kiev that included a surprise order on Saturday for Russian forces stretching from the Volga to western Siberia to go on "full combat alert".

Some analysts see this as an effort by Putin -- unable to keep Poroshenko from signing a historic economic pact with the European Union on Friday that will pull Ukraine further out of the Kremlin's reach -- to unsettle the new pro-Western leaders and keep reins on the Russified southeast while avoiding new Western sanctions.

French President Francois Hollande's office said he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Putin in a three-way call on Sunday "to promote the resumption of negotiations".

"It is a cat and mouse game for both sides," said Moscow's Political Expert Group head Konstantin Kalachev.

"Putin wants the rebels to become involved in the talks. For peace, both sides are needed."

Poroshenko stressed in his television address that he was "ready to talk with those who have erred, who mistakenly stood in the position of separatism."

"Except, of course, people who were involved in the acts of terrorism, murder or torture," he added.

Poroshenko addressed another top Putin priority by vowing to enshrine in the constitution locals' right to use the Russian language in schools and official business.

And he confirmed plans to establish a 10-kilometre (six-mile) buffer zone along the Russian border to stem the flow of weapons and gunmen from Ukraine's giant neighbour.

Both Kiev and its Western allies are anxious about the presence of new Russian forces along the frontier amid charges of growing flows of heavy weapons crossing into rebel-held parts of the east.

Ukrainian officials have told EU and G7 teams in Kiev that they had evidence of 10 additional tanks and sealed trucks coming over the border close to the eastern city of Lugansk since Thursday.

US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki noted that most of the equipment being gathered in southwest Russia was no longer used by its military.

"We believe that Russia may soon provide this equipment to separatist fighters," Psaki said.

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