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Ukraine

European foreign ministers meet in Vienna as Ukraine death toll rises

European foreign ministers are meeting in Vienna to discuss the ongoing Ukraine crisis. It comes after at least 30 people were believed killed in the east in fighting between army troops and pro-Russian separatists.

Foreign ministers from countries including Russia and Ukraine gathered in the Austrian capital Tuesday for the Council of Europe meeting, largely to debate the ongoing crisis in eastern Ukraine. One topic for discussion was another round of Geneva talks – – aimed at de-escalating the crisis. Both Russia and Ukraine were open to the idea, but only under certain conditions.

"To convene in this format again, when the opposition to Kiev regime is absent from the negotiating table, that would hardly add anything," said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in reference to pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine that have occupied buildings in at least a dozen cities. Ukraine has repeatedly said the rebels cannot take part in talks.

Lavrov's Ukrainian counterpart, interim Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia, said Russia would have to recognize planned presidential elections in Ukraine and make a move to curb the separatist movement before negotiations could resume.

"If Russia is ready to commit itself to support these elections and to eliminate this threat and eliminate its support for the extremist elements in Ukraine, we are ready to have such a round of meetings," Deshchytsia said.

Earlier on Tuesday, British Foreign Minister William Hague suggested the unrest is being stoked by Russia to disrupt upcoming Ukrainian presidential elections on May 25.

"Russia seems to be intent on a course of preventing and disrupting those elections. That is wrong," Hague told reporters as he arrived.

"I think there will be a very strong message from the great majority of countries here today that Ukrainian elections must be allowed to go ahead," he said. "The Ukrainians have every right to their own government, their own president and a free and democratic election."

Deaths in Slovyansk

The meeting comes a day after at least 30 pro-Russian separatists were believed killed in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk, according to interim Interior Minister Arsen Avakov.

"Four of our fighters were killed and 20 were wounded. According to our estimates, over 30 terrorists were killed and dozens were wounded," Avakov said on his Facebook page on Tuesday, adopting the term Kyiv uses for the pro-Russian insurgents in control of Slovyansk.

Avakov said the fighters included several from Russia and Chechnya as well as Crimea, annexed in March by Moscow.

Ukraine's forces have created a security cordon around the city and on Monday moved in in an attempt to squeeze the pro-Russian forces. Militants downed a Ukrainian helicopter gunship near the town, although the pilots were reported to have survived.

The army's offensive on the city began last Friday, killing at least nine people, including two Ukrainian servicemen who died when rebels shot down two army helicopters using surface-to-air missiles.

Kyiv has also moved to restore its grip on the southern port city of Odessa, sending in an elite national guard. The area had been largely peaceful until last Friday, when clashes killed over 40 people, many of them in a government building that was set on fire.

Germany warns of war, advises citizens to leave

In an interview with European newspapers published on Tuesday, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned that Ukraine was close to all-out conflict, and more needed to be done to prevent a new Cold War.

"The bloody pictures from Odessa have shown us that we are just a few steps away from a military confrontation," Steinmeier told Spain's El Pais, France's Le Monde, Italy's La Repubblica and Poland's Gazeta Wyborcza newspapers.

"The Ukraine conflict has increased in speed and intensity, in a way we would not have thought possible some time ago," he said.

The German foreign ministry has advised all Germans to leave the south and east of Ukraine, and to avoid Crimea.

"It is urgently advised to avoid traveling to Crimea," the ministry wrote on its website.

"In the German government's view, Crimea belongs to Ukraine but in actuality it is controlled by Russia. Due to the current situation German citizens can no longer be guaranteed consular services."

jr,mz/kms (Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa)

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