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Kerry, Lavrov to Meet for Ukraine Crisis Talks

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet Sunday in Paris, trying for a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis that would reverse Russia's buildup of military forces surrounding Ukraine.

U.S. officials who confirmed the Paris talks did not give specific details. VOA State Department correspondent Scott Stearns, who has been traveling with Kerry, reported from Ireland that the talks are expected to take place late Sunday.

A lengthy telephone discussion between President Barack Obama and Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin triggered the new round of talks. The new round of diplomacy is seen as an effort to defuse the Ukraine crisis, which in a matter of weeks has become the most serious dispute between Russia and the U.S. since the end of the Cold War.

The United States and its allies have insisted on a diplomatic solution for the Ukraine dispute, including Russia's controversial annexation of the strategic Crimean peninsula. In recent days the concentration of Russian troops, tanks and warships near Ukraine's borders has expanded considerably, but Lavrov, Russia's top diplomat, told state television Saturday that his country has no intention of sending these forces into Ukraine.

Kerry had been heading back to Washington from Saudi Arabia, where President Obama met with King Abdullah Friday, when he learned of Lavrov's comments. The secretary's plane changed course during a refueling stop in Shannon, Ireland, and headed for Paris.

Lavrov's pledge that Russia "absolutely" will not make any military move into Ukraine was not followed by any official statement giving President Putin's views on the matter. The Kremlin leader initiated the telephone contact with President Obama Friday, but some observers say it is unclear whether Mr. Putin will explicitly confirm his foreign minister's comments. They raise the possibility that Moscow may be reacting to its growing isolation over the Ukraine issue.

Ukraine's immediate neighbors - former Soviet republics that broke away from Moscow more than 20 years ago - and the Kremlin's former allies in Eastern Europe have strongly denounced Russia's pressure on Ukraine, and their views have been echoed throughout Western Europe. The United Nations General Assembly also voted overwhelmingly to oppose Russia's annexation of Crimea earlier this month.

The United States and its European allies have begun imposing economic sanctions against Russia, and there have been preliminary indications that those moves are already affecting the Russian economy.

The U.S. and others also have been pressing Russia to allow international monitors into Crimea to provide assurances that the ethnic-Ukrainian population there is safe from reprisals by pro-Russian militias and local authorities.

The Russian military buildup around Ukraine raised fears that President Putin's policies were steering his nation toward "a new Cold War." U.S. officials estimate Russia has massed 40,000 troops close to Ukraine's borders; Ukrainian government officials contend the Russian buildup around their northern, eastern and southern borders is closer to 100,000 troops.

Relations between Moscow and Kyiv plummeted nearly a month ago, after Russian forces moved into Crimea in open support of a breakaway movement there whose activities Ukraine said were illegal. Pro-Russian forces in Crimea unilaterally proposed and held a short-notice referendum in Crimea, a vote that declared the Black Sea territory independent of Ukrainian control by a margin of more than nine to one. Since then local authorities in Crimea have been seizing control of Ukrainian state assets and removing any evidence that the territory is part of Ukraine.

Mr. Putin and the Russian parliament subsequently annexed Crimea, making it a separate part of the Russian state although no part of Crimea borders Russian soil.

In Ukraine Saturday, opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko dropped out of the race for president and threw his support behind billionaire businessman Petro Poroshenko.

Ukraine's former president Viktor Yanukovych left Kyiv for asylum in Russia after large-scale demonstrations against him last month, and the parliament in Kyiv called a presidential election for May.

Klitschko, a former world heavyweight boxing champion, told delegates from his party the only way for the opposition to take over full control in Ukraine is to nominate, support and elect "a single candidate representing democratic forces."

Poroshenko and former prime minister Yulia Timoshenko are now the clear frontrunners in the May 25 election.

Ms. Tymoshenko was freed from prison during the tumult of the uprising against Mr. Yanukovych, who had defeated her in Ukraine's last previous presidential election, in 2010. last month. She had been jailed since 2011 on charges of abuse of office.

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