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Ukraine Purges Interior Ministry Leadership With Pro-Russian Ties

FILE - Ukraine's Interior Minister Arsen Avakov

Ukraine's interior minister, Arsen Avakov, said 91 people "in positions of leadership" have been fired from the ministry, including 8 generals found to have links to past pro-Russian governments.

Avakov, writing Wednesday on Facebook, said the dismissals targeted department heads, including the ministry's regional directorates in Kyiv and Donetsk.

The dismissals were linked to a new anti-graft law that targets civil servants who held federal or regional positions under ousted president Viktor Yanukovych. His successor, pro-Western President Petro Poroshenko, signed the so-called "lustration" legislation into law earlier this month.

Separately, the European Union and the United Nations -- seeking an end to the ongoing rebellion by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine's east -- are denouncing Russia for supporting rebel-backed elections in areas they control near the Russian border.

Rebels plan polls for Sunday in their self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, despite widespread condemnation and international warnings that the vote will not be recognized in the West.

U.N. and EU statements Wednesday said the rebel vote also undermines a shaky cease-fire reached last month between rebel leaders and the Kyiv government.

Despite ongoing combat and frayed ties between Moscow and the West, Russian, EU and Ukraine envoys resumed talks Wednesday aimed settling a natural gas dispute that threatens energy-dependent Ukraine as winter approaches.

EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger, speaking ahead of the Brussels meeting, said there is a 50-percent chance an interim deal can be reached.

In June, as fighting raged in Ukraine's east, Moscow stopped gas supplies to Ukraine over what it said were Kyiv's unpaid energy bills of about $5 billion.

Russia is demanding prepayment to restart winter gas supplies, while Kyiv says it is working to raise more money internationally to pay the arrears.

The European Commission is considering Ukraine's recent request for a new EU loan of about $2.5 billion.

In a another development, NATO says its aircraft tracked Russian strategic bombers over the Atlantic and the Black Sea on Wednesday, in what an alliance called an unusually high level of activity. Russian aircraft also have been tracked by NATO in the past week over the North Sea and Baltic Sea.

A spokesman said Wednesday there had been no violation of NATO airspace. A day earlier, alliance fighter jets, as well as interceptors from non-members Finland and Sweden, tracked seven Russian aircraft in the region.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP and Reuters.