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Ukraine, Russian Presidents to Meet in Bid to End Crisis

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, shakes hands with his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko, as Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev watches, in Minsk, Aug. 26, 2014.

Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko says he will meet with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin next week in Italy for talks on a peace plan for eastern Ukraine and an ongoing natural gas dispute.

Poroshenko, speaking Saturday, said the talks will take place on the sidelines of an Asia-Europe summit in Milan, and are likely to include the leaders of Germany, France, Italy and Britain.

The Ukraine leader warned of difficult negotiations, while telling reporters "we are very close" to settling the gas dispute with Moscow.

Russia shut off gas deliveries to energy-dependent Ukraine in June, over what Moscow claims are more than $5 billion in unpaid energy bills. The cutoff raises the specter of significant shortages in Kyiv and beyond, as the predictably harsh Eurasian winter approaches.

Meanwhile, Ukraine defense spokesman Andriy Lysenko says attacks by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine's embattled east appear to be subsiding. Speaking Saturday in Kyiv, he said Ukraine forces are ready to withdraw heavy weaponry from the front where rebels and government forces have battled for months.

Separately, rebel leader Oleksandr Zakharchenko told reporters in Donetsk that separatists could begin a similar frontline artillery withdrawal in five days.

Pro-Russian rebels launched their rebellion in April, weeks after pro-Western protesters in Kyiv drove Russian-leaning Viktor Yanukovych from the Ukraine presidency.

Western governments have accused the Kremlin of directly supporting the rebellion, and have hit Moscow with a series of economic sanctions in response.

For its part, Russia has denied direct involvement in the uprising, which has claimed more than 3,500 lives.

Some information for this report comes from AFP and Reuters.