Kiev (AFP) 21/5/2014 04:05:43
'via Blog this'
Ukraine has said that Russian troops have moved away from the border, just days before the country's make-or-break presidential poll, but stopped short of confirming the full withdrawal the West demands.
Moscow had announced it was pulling back its forces in a move that has the potential to deflate a bloody Kremlin-backed insurgency threatening to tear the ex-Soviet nation apart.
Kiev's Western-backed leaders were also boosted Tuesday when Ukraine's richest man Rinat Akhmetov denounced the armed rebels who have overrun a dozen cities in his eastern industrial power base as bandits who might create "genocide".
Ukraine's border service announced Tuesday that none of the estimated 40,000 Russian soldiers were now stationed within 10 kilometres (six miles) of the country.
But Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia, on a visit to Berlin, later said he could not confirm a withdrawal.
"I hope that the declarations by Russian politicians that the troops are to be withdrawn from Ukraine's borders do not just remain declarations," he said.
Tensions between Moscow and the West have spiralled to Cold-War highs over the crisis in Ukraine, particularly Russia's annexation of Crimea in March and allegations it is driving the insurgency.
The United Nations estimates that around 130 people have died since violence in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions near the Russian border broke out last month.
The UN refugee agency said another 10,000 people -- many of them ethnic Tatars in Crimea -- have been internally displaced.
Ahead of Sunday's vote, Ukrainian authorities are to hold a new round of "national dialogue" Wednesday aimed at ending the insurgency. The round-table discussions are to take place in the southern city of Mykolayv.
- Move could 'de-escalate' crisis -
The United States and NATO have sent troops to Poland and the three tiny Baltic nations to calm jitters about Russian troops possibly not only overrunning Ukraine but also pushing further into Europe in a bid to reclaim ex-Soviet satellite states.
NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Monday that a real Russian withdrawal -- following several earlier promises by President Vladimir Putin -- would be an "important contribution to de-escalating the crisis".
But the war of words between Washington and Moscow showed no signs of a let-up.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said in an interview that Moscow and the West were still "slowly but surely" approaching a second Cold War.
And US Vice President Joe Biden, on a visit to Romania, blasted Russia's seizure of the Crimean peninsula, saying: "Europe's borders should never again be changed at the point of a gun".
Amid the standoff Russia carried out a successful test-launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile from its Kapustin Yar rocket launch site near the Caspian Sea, news agencies reported citing the defence ministry.
Both Kiev and its Western allies see Sunday's presidential vote -- backed only grudgingly by Moscow -- as a chance to unite the culturally splintered nation and win more legitimacy in the Kremlin's eyes.
However, Kiev authorities have admitted they will have a hard time ensuring that polling proceeds smoothly in the eastern districts where the rebels still control dozens of cities and towns.
- 'Fear and terror' -
"People are tired of living in fear and terror," said the Donetsk native who once funded the deposed pro-Kremlin regime but is now seeking to build closer relations with the new Kiev team.
The Ukrainian government hailed Akhmetov's intervention, with Interior Minister Arsen Avakov saying it "will help (Ukrainians) settle our differences and let our rifles gather dust".
Putin has denied any direct role in the uprising and has so far refused to recognise the independence proclaimed by Donetsk and Lugansk in May 11 referendums that both the West and Kiev have denounced as a sham.
Russia has recently rolled back its vehement opposition to Sunday's election but also called on Kiev to immediately withdraw all its troops from the east.
Ukraine's military has so far failed to dislodge the rebels and suffered a number of humiliating setbacks since it launched its "anti-terrorist" offensive five weeks ago.
The international community is pushing for a negotiated settlement under a peace roadmap sponsored by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Two rounds of national unity dialogue have been held but Kiev's leaders have refused to invite the separatists -- to the deep annoyance of Moscow.
The Pentagon meanwhile said the Navy was sending a guided missile cruiser to the Black Sea, the latest bid by Washington to reassure allies.
The Vella Gulf will arrive in the Black Sea after the recent departure of the frigate USS Taylor, which left the area on May 12.
And US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that two Russian journalists whom Moscow has accused Kiev of holding captive in eastern Ukraine were carrying anti-aircraft missiles.
Two reporters of Russian website Life News were reportedly arrested by Ukrainian troops near the city of Kramatorsk, prompting a furious reaction from Moscow and demands they be immediately released.