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 to devolve power.
Such a proposal would mean that regional governors and their administrations would no longer appointed by the central government, and regional referendums would be permitted.
Addressing another concern of Russian-speaking residents in eastern Ukraine, 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.
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Separatists in Luhansk, who seized the state security building and call themselves the Southeastern Army, showed little signs of backing down from their demands.
"We demand that the central authorities pass a law within three days on a local referendum and formalise the status of united forces of the Southeastern army as a military unit,'' said Valery Bulatov, a leader, who was quoted Friday by Reuters news agency.
Kyiv had threatened to use force if the buildings were not cleared by Friday morning. But during his visit Friday, Yatsenyuk said 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," he said. "In the framework of the changed constitution, we will be able to satisfy specific requests of every single region."
Also Friday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had called U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to discuss the standoff in the east.
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.”
Recent surveys suggest residents of eastern Ukraine overwhelmingly oppose any move to join Russia.
Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin said Friday Russia would fulfill its obligations to European gas clients and had no plans to halt deliveries to Ukraine -- a day after warning that supplies to Europe could be disrupted by Ukraine's failure to pay its gas bills.
Putin was quoted by Reuters news agency as saying, "We guarantee fulfillment of all our obligations to our European consumers."
His comments appeared to aimed at easing concerns in Europe, while also keeping pressure on Ukraine to pay its $2.2 billion debt for Russian gas.
The Obama administration has accused Putin of using gas as a "tool of coercion."
Ukraine's energy minister told parliament Friday that Kyiv hopes to buy gas from
Europe to shore up its energy security, fearful Russia will cut gas supplies over Kiev's refusal to pay Moscow's soaring prices.
According to Reuters news agency, Yuri Prodan told parliament the European Union would stand in solidarity with Ukraine if Russia reduced supplies, making sure Moscow could not increase flows through alternative pipelines to bypass its former Soviet neighbor.
Amid the tensions, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that Russia must withdraw tens of thousands of troops from the Ukrainian border and enter into sincere dialogue with the West.
On Friday, Rasmussen saiid the alliance was not discussing military action over Ukraine, but added that it was taking steps to protect its partners effectively.
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 photographs, released to news outlets, follows repeated Russian assurances the deployment is no cause for alarm. Russia has denied any plans to invade eastern Ukraine.
Many observers believe Putin is hoping to keep the new government in Kyiv unstable to scuttle efforts to establish closer ties to the West.
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.
In late March, Russia annexed Crimea following a referendum in the Russian dominated Black Sea region, a move considered a violation of international law by the EU, U.S. and NATO.
The United States and the European Union immediately slapped sanctions on key Russian leaders -- and have threatened to add more punitive measures if Putin escalates the crisis.
The U.S., EU, Ukraine and Russia have agreed to hold four-way talks on the crisis, expected to take place next Thursday in Geneva.