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Ukraine

While IMF urges calm over Ukraine economy, three countries freeze suspicious Ukrainian assets

IMF chief Christine Lagarde has dismissed panic over Ukraine's economy as premature. Her call for calm came as Switzerland, Austria and Liechtenstein said they were freezing assets held by roughly 20 Ukrainians.

"We do not see anything that is critical, that is worthy of panic at the moment," the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Christine Lagarde, said on Friday. The comments referred to recent warnings from the newly-installed interim government in Ukraine of impending bankruptcy for the eastern European country.

Lagarde dismissed the estimates of the Ukrainian deficit circulating through the media as "meaningless."

"It is highly premature to assess financials needs," the IMF chief said in Washington on Friday.

In November, ousted President Viktor Yanukovych shelved an Association Agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia. Soon after the decision, Moscow granted Kyiv a $15-billion (10.86 billion-euro) loan and a better deal on natural gas shipments. Yanukovych defended the move at the time as a necessary step toward keeping the Ukrainian economy afloat, for which the EU's proposed financial aid would not have sufficed.

The ouster of President Yanukovych by pro-EU protesters last week paved the way for the installment of an interim government. However, continued political instability in Ukraine has further weakened its economy and prompted urgent calls from the new leadership for immediate financial aid.

IMF chief Lagarde reiterated that an expert team from the Washington-based organization would travel to Kyiv early next week to properly assess the situation.

Ukraine's currency, the hryvnia, rebounded after days in decline on Friday, rising to roughly 9.100 to the dollar. On Thursday, the hryvnia sank to the historic low of 11.3075 to the dollar.

Steinmeier urges Russia to help

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who met with the head of the IMF in Washington on Friday, echoed Lagarde's sentiment.

There was currently little evidence to support "the numbers which are being circulated [in the media]," Steinmeier said.

Steinmeier further called on Russia to help the Ukrainian economy, which recently decided to freeze the multi-billion dollar loans package to Kyiv.

"The stabilization of Ukraine can only succeed if we bring as many partners as possible to the table," the German foreign minister said.

Foreign Minister Steinmeier has played a leading role in talks in Kyiv. Last week, he, alongside his French and Polish counterparts, helped negotiate the peace deal that brought violent protests to an end.

Doubt has arisen since Wednesday over Russia's intensions toward Ukraine, following the announcement of a military drill in the country's vast western region, which borders Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin contends the exercise is not related to the political crisis in Ukraine and has said Moscow would not infringe on Ukraine's sovereignty.

Freeze on Ukrainian assets

On Friday, officials in Switzerland, Austria and Liechtenstein said they would be freezing the assets of roughly 20 Ukrainians. Ousted President Viktor Yanukovych and his 40-year-old son Oleksandr were included in the account freezes.

An official in Geneva said Yanukovych and his son were also being investigated for money laundering.

Liechtenstein officials reportedly froze the assets of the same 20 Ukrainians as Switzerland.

Austria' foreign ministry, meanwhile, said it was freezing possible bank accounts of 18 Ukrainian citizens, citing a request from the foreign ministry in Kyiv. It did not release the identifies of the account holders.

The interim government in Kyiv on Thursday accused Yanukovych's administration of funneling billions out of state coffers and into offshore accounts over the past three years. The ousted president has dismissed allegations of holding a Swiss bank account as "empty chatter."

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

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