Russia's President Vladimir Putin called on pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday to postpone plans for a May 11 referendum on whether to declare greater independence from Ukraine.
Putin's comments, which were made following talks with the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Swiss President Didier Burkhalter, appeared to open a way to resolving the standoff between Russia and the West over Ukraine's crisis.
"We call on the representatives of southeastern Ukraine, the supporters of the federalisation of the country, to postpone the referendum planned for May 11," Putin said.
He said this would create conditions for dialogue between the Ukrainian authorities in the capital Kiev and the separatists, some of whom want greater autonomy while others demand secession.
Putin added that Russia had withdrawn its forces from its border with Ukraine, where NATO said that about 40,000 Russian troops had gathered.
"We were told constantly about concerns over our troops near the Ukrainian border. We have pulled them back. Today they are not at the Ukrainian border but in places of regular exercises, at training grounds," Putin said.
Putin also said that Ukraine's upcoming presidential election – scheduled to be held on May 25 – was a move "in the right direction," but repeated Russia's long-held stance that constitutional reforms must precede any nationwide vote in Ukraine.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP, REUTERS)
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Original headline: UKRAINE - Putin calls on separatists in eastern Ukraine to postpone referendum
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