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    Putin Calls on Separatists in E. Ukraine to Postpone Secession Referendum

    Russian President Vladimir Putin has urged pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine to postpone a referendum on secession set for Sunday.

    Speaking to reporters Wednesday after meeting in Moscow with the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (Didier Burkhalter), Mr. Putin said he was making the request in order to "create the necessary condition for dialogue" with the Ukrainian government.

    Mr. Putin accused Kyiv authorities of taking power in a "coup" and failing to disarm radical right-wing elements and nationalists. But he said he wanted to see the crisis resolved as soon as possible -- "taking into account the interests of all Ukrainian citizens, no matter where they live."

    Pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk have said they plan to hold a referendum on Sunday (May 11) asking residents whether they favor an independent "Donetsk People's Republic."

    A separatist leader (Denis Pushilin) told the Reuters news agency that a "people's assembly" would discuss Mr. Putin's request to delay the vote -- adding that they have the "utmost respect" for the Russian president.

    In another apparent change in tone, Mr. Putin gave a qualified endorsement of Ukraine's presidential election set for May 25, calling it "a movement in the right direction." However, he added that the vote will solve nothing if "all of Ukraine's citizens do not understand how their rights will be guaranteed" after the election.

    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that if Moscow interferes with the election, the United States will impose more sanctions that will further hamper the Russian economy.

    In response, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested the legitimacy of the election is in doubt because of Kyiv's military operation against pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine.

    In his press conference Wednesday, President Putin called on the Ukrainian authorities to immediately cease what he called "all military and punitive operations" in southeastern Ukraine

    He also insisted that Russian military forces have been withdrawn from the Ukrainian border.

    After Mr. Putin made his comments, a NATO official told VOA that the Western military alliance has "no indication of a change in the position of (Russian) military forces along the Ukraine border."



    Meanwhile, skirmishes between Ukrainian government forces and armed pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine continued Wednesday.

    Ukrainian security forces in Mariupol drove armed separatists out of the city council building. However, Western media reported that the Ukrainian forces abandoned the building later after a crowd of pro-Russian militants gathered outside.

    The two sides also exchanged fire in a battle for control of a television in Andreyevka, just outside the city of Slovyansk, a rebel stronghold. According to the Ukrainian government, security forces killed 30 separatist fighters in Slovyansk in a battle earlier this week.

    Ukraine's Security Service said Wednesday that 14 Ukrainian servicemen have been killed at 66 wounded since the offensive was launched in mid-April.

    Meanwhile, Ukraine's central bank announced that it had received over $3 billion from the International Monetary Fund. The money is the first part of a $17 billion loan package.

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