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Ukraine's richest man seeks to rally local opposition to pro-Russian separatists

Ukraine’s richest man has sought to use his influence to counter pro-Russia separatists in the east of the country. Rinat Akmetov called on his workers and other supporters to attend peace demonstrations in the region.

The response to Akmetov's call for people to attend peace rallies in cities in eastern Ukraine on Tuesday appeared modest. However, the DPA news agency reported that a few hundred had attended a rally at the football stadium that he owns in Donetsk.

Reuters meanwhile reported that sirens at factories owned by Akmetov in Donetsk and the Sea of Azov port of Mariupol were sounded on Tuesday, while in other cities, drivers showed support by sounding their horns and slowing their cars.

The protests came a day after Akhmetov used a video statement to come out publicly against the pro-Russian forces in the eastern Donbass region, where he owns several businesses, including steel plants, factories and coal mines.

In the video, he denounced violence committed by the separatists, saying their activities were a danger to the region's health.

"To plunder in cities and kidnap civilians - what is that, a fight for our region's well-being? No! That is a fight against our people, a fight against Donbass! It is a genocide of the Donbass!" he said.

"No one will frighten us, including those calling themselves a Donetsk People's Republic," he added, in an apparent reference to the insurgents' having declared both the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk a self-styled independent state last week.

The move comes a week after one of his companies had organized patrols by steel workers who worked alongside police officers in Mariupol in an effort to improve security there. This forced pro-Russian separatists to vacate local government buildings that they had seized.

Western support for presidential vote

It also comes just days ahead of the Ukrainian presidential election, which the pro-Russian separatists say they will boycott, but that Western leaders have said is key to calming the situation in the country. This point was stressed by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Tuesday, following a meeting in Berlin with his Ukrainian counterpart, Andriy Deshchytsia.

Steinmeier told reporters that the importance of Sunday's vote "cannot be overstated. They are a crucial milestone and a real chance for a new start in Ukraine."

"It could be the key to bringing back economic and political stability. We hope that these elections will be the beginning of a stabilization of Ukraine.

No confirmation of Russian troop pull-back

Deshchytsia, meanwhile, said Ukraine's government could not yet confirm that Russian troops were pulling back from their common border, as announced by President Vladimir Putin on Monday.

"We hope that the declarations by Russian politicians that the troops are to be withdrawn from Ukraine's borders don't just remain declarations," he said.

US and NATO officials had previously said they too could not confirm that the Russian troops were withdrawing.

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

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