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Presidential Hopeful Tymoshenko Talks to Pro-Russian Separatists

Former Ukrainian prime minister and presidential hopeful Yulia Tymoshenko speaks during a press conference in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, April 22, 2014.

Former Ukrainian prime minister and presidential hopeful Yulia Tymoshenko speaks during a press conference in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, April 22, 2014.

Ukrainian presidential hopeful Yulia Tymoshenko held private talks with pro-Russian separatist leaders in eastern Ukrainian Tuesday, in a bid to break the deadlock between them and the government in Kyiv. She says more dialogue will be needed for a clash to be averted.

Pro-Russian separatists have occupied the regional government offices in Donetsk since April 7. The Soviet-era music and patriotic Russian songs blaring out of speakers may give the feel of a festival, but inside, the militants are preparing in earnest for the government to try to oust them, and there is a sense here of foreboding.

Ukrainian presidential hopeful Yulia Tymoshenko, a controversial former prime minister, arrived in Donetsk Tuesday to see if she could help break the deadlock and persuade the pro-Russian militants to leave the government buildings they are occupying in several eastern Ukrainian towns.

She told VOA in an interview following a news conference that she is working in parallel with the government and pursuing dialogue, but that more negotiations are needed. In the meantime, she says, the government must use all the necessary means within the law to end the crisis.

Tymoshenko, who also met with Donetsk business leaders, had planned to hold a news conference outside the regional government offices. But an air of menace from gathering masked militants, a scuffle and the arrival of pro-Russian babushukas (elderly women) persuaded her aides to move to a nearby hotel.

Eastern Ukraine is not a political stronghold for the former prime minister. And although Russian President Vladimir Putin has hinted that she is his favorite among all the candidates in Ukraine’s presidential elections slated for next month, Tymoshenko remains unpopular here.

Despite that, some political analysts suspect Tymoshenko, who is trailing badly in opinion polls, hopes to pick up votes in the east and to present herself as the only candidate who can appeal to both ethnic Ukrainians and Russians.

Some pro-Ukrainian activists are angry she held talks with pro-Russian separatists. Their disappointment increased later Tuesday when news broke that a local politician and member of Tymoshenko’s own Fatherland Party was found dead, with his body showing signs of torture. The Kyiv government suspects that pro-Russian militants were behind the killing.

The murder has prompted Ukraine's acting President Oleksandr Turchynov to threaten to re-launch an anti-terrorist operation in the east of the country and forcibly evict pro-Russian separatists from the buildings they have occupied.

Tymoshenko says it is important to continue to negotiate.

However, negotiations don’t appear to be resolving the crisis.

Vladimir Makovich, speaker of the presidium of the self-styled Donetsk People's Republic, remains adamant. He says the only way he and his men will leave peacefully is if the government in Kyiv resigns.