Separatists in eastern Ukraine have said they will go ahead with a referendum slated for the weekend. The decision was made despite a surprise call from the Russian president to seek dialogue with Kyiv.
After weeks of violent clashes with government forces in Ukraine, the self-proclaimed leaders of Ukraine's separatist movement said they would move ahead with plans to hold a controversial referendum slated for Sunday. Separatist leaders in the flashpoint cities of Slavyansk and Donetsk briefed reporters on their decision on Thursday.
The previous day Russian Vladimir Putin urged the referendum supporters – considered to be in favor of closer ties with Moscow, and possibly, joining the Russian Federation – to delay the vote amid escalating violence in Ukraine.
However, the call for dialogue appeared to have no effect on their plans.
"We have just voted in the People's Council...The date of the referendum was endorsed by 100 percent. The referendum will take place on May 11," rebel leader Denis Pushilin said.
Ahead of the announcment, the interim government in Kyiv expressed interest in opening a dialogue with the political opposition from the east. However, it dismissed opening a dialogue with "terrorists," a term it has used to describe armed militants who have taken control of several cities.
"A dialogue with terrorists is impossible and inconceivable," the Ukrainian foreign ministry said on Thursday.
It also vowed to continue its military operations aimed at wresting government buildings away from the militants.
"The counterterrorist operation will go on regardless of any decisions by any subversive or terrorist groups in the Donetsk region," Andriy Parubiy, the secretary of Ukraine's national security and defense council told reporters on Thursday.
Following Moscow's annexation of the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula Crimea in March, opponents of the interim government in Kyiv called for a similar referendum that would give Ukraine's east more autonomy. The vote has been viewed as a precursor for the region to join the Russian Federation. Not only have Kyiv and Western leaders dismissed the referendum as illegitimate and illegal, but they have also accused Moscow of infiltrating eastern Ukrainian politics and coordinating some of the violence.
Steinmeier: Putin's tone 'constructive'
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier described the Russian president's comments from Wednesday as "constructive," expressing hope that they could help reverse the growing crisis which many fear could result in a war.
"The situation is critical, but there's still the chance that we can hinder a further escalation and complete loss of control in eastern Ukraine with the help of diplomatic means," Steinmeier said, adding: "We are now at very decisive point."
The German foreign minister also renewed calls for the May 25 election in Kyiv to move forward in order to pave the way for a constitution.
"That's why a national dialogue involving appropriate representatives from eastern Ukraine is of utmost importance," he said.
It remained unclear whether Russian troops remained stationed along the country's southwestern border with Ukraine on Thursday. Despite Putin's contention the previous day that they had been redeployed to other regions, NATO and the Pentagon later said they had seen no signs of troop movement.
Poland, which has called on fellow NATO-member the US for military assistance out of fears of Russian aggression, cautioned against believing Putin.
"This is not yet the moment when we can announce with enthusiasm that the crisis is over. We both hope that perhaps Putin's words indicate some kind of a more optimistic scenario, but today is too early for us to confirm that," Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said during a joint news conference with visiting NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Thursday.
kms/mz (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)