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European Union

European Union leaders prepare but delay imposing tougher sanctions on Russia

European Union leaders have decided to delay imposing further sanctions on Russia over its alleged actions in Ukraine. However, they have also prepared fresh sanctions so that they could be imposed at short notice.

The heads of state and government from the EU's 28 members states released a statement on Friday saying that they were giving the Kremlin and pro-Russian separatist fighters until Monday to take significant steps to end the violence in eastern Ukraine.

These, the statement said, including agreeing on a mechanism to monitor a ceasefire, returning three border posts to government control, releasing all captives and starting what it described as "substantial negotiations" based on a peace plan unveiled by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko last week.

They also expressed frustration at the fact that the week-long ceasefire announced by Poroshenko as an initial step in his peace plan had not ended the fighting.

"The European Council regrets that the ceasefire, while being respected by the Ukrainian authorities, has not led to the full cessation of military hostilities," it said.

President Poroshenko meanwhile, has not said whether he will extend the ceasefire, which is to expire in a few hours. Speaking at a press conference in Brussels, Poroshenko said he would decide whether to extend the truce after returning to Kyiv.

As Poroshenko continued to ponder whether to extend the ceasefire or not, the United Nations' refugee agency announced that there had been a spike in people fleeing eastern Ukraine over the past week.

In an encouraging development early on Friday, pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine released four observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) whom they they had held for more than a month.

Four other observers from the Vienna-based organization are still in rebel hands.

'Historic day'

Earlier in the day, Poroshenko, as well as the leaders of Moldova and Georgia signed association and free trade agreements with the EU, designed to bring the three eastern European countries closer to the bloc.

"I think this is one of the most historic days for my country after getting independence," Poroshenko told reporters as he arrived for the signing ceremony. "It's an absolutely new perspective for my country."

It was a decision by Kremlin-friendly former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych late last year to balk at signing the agreements, that in part sparked the country's ongoing crisis.

Moldova's Prime Minister Iurie Leanca and his Georgian counterpart, Irakli Garibashvili, expressed a similar sentiment.

pfd/msh (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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