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Ukraine's PM Conciliatory as Separatist Standoff Continues in Eastern Ukraine

Ukraine's acting prime minister has offered concessions to regional leaders and pro-Russian protesters, after Kyiv's deadline passed for separatists to vacate state buildings they had seized.

Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and other top Ukrainian government officials traveled to the city of Donetsk, where they met Friday with eastern Ukrainian governors and mayors, as well as other influential eastern Ukrainian figures, including tycoon Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest man.

The acting prime minister said he supported amending Ukraine's constitution and changing laws so that regional governors and their administrations are no longer appointed by the central government, and regional referendums are permitted.

Addressing another concern of Russian-speaking residents in eastern Ukraine, Mr. Yatsenyuk also promised that no one would be allowed to "limit the Russian language and the right to speak it in Ukraine."

It is unclear if such concessions will satisfy the armed pro-Russian militants who stormed government buildings in Donetsk, Luhansk and other eastern Ukrainian cities this week, demanding Kyiv allow a referendum on independence.

The government had offered amnesty for those who surrender but initially threatened to use force if the buildings were not cleared by Friday morning.

Prime Minister Yatsenyuk said Friday that he is optimistic the standoff can be resolved.

"I would like to state clearly that the central government is not only ready for dialogue with regions, but is ready to fulfill lawful requirements and wishes of all the citizens of our country. In the framework of the changed constitution, we will be able to satisfy specific requests of every single region."

There were no signs the government was following through on its threat to forcibly vacate the buildings. Neither was there evidence protesters were about to surrender.

Meanwhile, Russia's Foreign Ministry said Friday that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had called U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to discuss the standoff in eastern Ukraine.

According to the ministry, Lavrov told Kerry that Washington should use its influence with Ukraine's government "to prevent the use of force" and encourage Kyiv "to have a dialogue with representatives of the (Ukrainian) regions to create conditions allowing for comprehensive constitutional reform."

In the city of Luhansk, one protester, who did not give her name, said if police attempt to remove the activists, things will only get worse.

"We will stay here until the end. Our children are now working in mines, but when it starts (Ukraine government operation to clear building) they will all come here. We will stay and if they kill us - let it be."

Recent surveys suggest residents of eastern Ukraine overwhelmingly oppose any move to join Russia.

Meanwhile, there are lingering concerns that Moscow might invade eastern Ukraine.

NATO on Thursday released aerial photographs showing what it says are 40,000 Russian troops, along with tanks and aircraft massed near the Ukrainian border.

The imagery released to news outlets, follows repeated Russian assurances the deployment is no cause for alarm.

On Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he is ready for four-party talks on Ukraine with the U.S., the European Union and Kyiv.

But he said in order for tensions to be reduced, the West should stop its efforts to "legitimize" Ukraine's pro-Western leaders.

"We believe it is indeed possible to de-escalate the Ukrainian crisis. To achieve that, it is necessary to stop imposing fait accompli, to stop the efforts by every possible means, to legitimize the 'Maidan' government."

Ukraine's current government came to power following the so-called "Euromaidan" protests that forced the country's pro-Russian leaders from power in February.

A month later, Moscow proceeded to annex Ukraine's Crimean peninsula, a move that prompted Washington to impose sanctions on Russia.

The U.S. is threatening to impose more economic penalties if Russia does not pull back its troops from the border.

A White House statement on Thursday said the U.S. and its allies are "prepared to meet further Russian escalation with additional sanctions."

At the World Bank/IMF spring meetings in Washington Thursday, U.S. leaders also threatened more sanctions against Russia.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew told his Russian counterpart he could expect "significant" sanctions in the event of further escalation.

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