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Ukraine

West presses Russia to hold direct talks with Ukraine interim government

Russian and Western foreign ministers have met in Paris, amid calls for Moscow to enter direct talks with Kyiv. The UN said its envoy to Crimea had been "threatened" by unknown gunmen and told to leave the peninsula.

West mulls response as Crimea tensions simmer

US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, met on Wednesday for the first time since Russia took military control of Crimea.

The pair, along with their British, French and German counterparts, spoke at a meeting over coffee in Paris - with the Western governments urging Russia to hold direct talks with the new government in Kyiv.

Kerry was said to have urged Lavrov to hold face-to-face talks with his Ukrainian counterpart. A statement issued by the US, Britain and Ukraine described engagement as "crucial."

"The United States, United Kingdom and Ukraine agreed that direct talks between Ukraine and Russia, facilitated as needed by members of the international community, are crucial to resolving the current situation," said a copy of the statement published by the news agency Reuters.

The three countries also called for a monitoring mission to be deployed. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said on Wednesday that military observers were already on their way.

Meanwhile, there were reports from Ukraine's Foreign Ministry that a UN envoy visiting Crimea had been kidnapped, although - according to Reuters - these were denied by UN Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson. However, Eliasson did say the envoy, Robert Serry, had been threatened and warned that "he should leave Crimea."

Serry - who was understood to have returned to his hotel after the incident - was in Crimea to "take stock of the situation" in close contact with the OSCE. A reporter from the British news network ITN said on Twitter that Serry had been holed up in a coffee shop surrounded by armed men, and had finally agreed to end his mission and return to the airport.

NATO weighs its options

Meanwhile, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told a Congressional committee that Washington would expand military operations in Poland and the Baltic states, as NATO considers its response to the crisis. "This morning the Defense Department is pursuing measures to support our allies," said US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

Measures, he said, would include expanded aviation training in Poland and a greater role for Washington in NATO air policing over the Baltic nations.

The issue has been complicated by Russia’s rejection of the legitimacy of the interim government in Kyiv, which has called for talks with Moscow. Moscow insists that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych remains the head of state.

In the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on Wednesday, a group of pro-Russian activists seized a regional administration building that they had lost to police only hours earlier. The crowd of some 200 reentered the building despite a heavy police presence, and replaced a Russian flag.

'Stop the pin-pricks'

Germany on Wednesday stressed the need for diplomacy and urged Russia to halt perceived acts of provocation. Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert described the situation as "unacceptable."

"If there is to be a diplomatic process, everything has to be done to promote stability in Ukraine and everything avoided that could lead to destabilization," Seibert said. "Russia must stop the pin-pricks that could lead to destabilization."

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said Berlin was prepared to help Ukraine financially if necessary. "We are ready and engaged to do everything to help Ukraine on its path in this difficult phase, including financially."

The EU has said it will assist Kyiv, but that a projected 11-billion euro ($15-billion) aid package would hinge on Ukraine's agreement to economic reforms, such as an end to gas subsidies.

Financial assistance has been urged to rescue Ukraine from the brink of economic collapse, with the country's borrowing costs soaring since the political crisis took hold in November. Street protests, and the occupation of Kyiv's Independence Square (Maidan) began after ousted President Viktor Yanukovych opted not to sign an association deal with the EU, instead opting to strengthen economic cooperation with Russia.

rc/mz (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)

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