US and Russia urge peaceful solution to Ukraine crisis

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image copyrightAP
image captionThe Kiev authorities say the standoff in eastern cities of Ukraine must be resolved within two days

US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart have agreed on the need to resolve the security situation in eastern Ukraine peacefully, officials say.

It comes as pro-Russia activists continue to occupy state buildings in eastern cities of Ukraine.

The government in Kiev has warned them to enter into dialogue to resolve the crisis or face "force".

The EU, Russia, US and Ukraine are to meet next week for talks on the crisis.

It will be the first four-way meeting since Russia annexed the southern Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in February. Russian troops are now massed along the borders of the two countries.

Senior US diplomat Victoria Nuland said on Wednesday that expectations were not high for the talks, though it was important to keep the "diplomatic door open".

'Dialogue, not force'

Pro-Russia activists have blockaded state buildings in the cities of Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk since Sunday, calling for greater regional autonomy and condemning the Kiev government.

image copyrightAP/DigitalGlobe via SHAPE
image captionSeveral satellite images have been released by the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe of the Russia/Ukraine border areas. This 22 March 2014 photo appears to show Russia's elite Spetsnaz forces stationed at Yeysk in southern Russia, near the border
image copyrightAP/DigitalGlobe via SHAPE
image captionThis image, also made on 27 March, purports to show Russian artillery battalion at a military base near Nonocherkassk, east of the Sea of Azov in southern Russia
image copyrightAP/DigitalGlobe via SHAPE
image captionThis apparently shows Russian tanks at a base near Kuzminka on 27 March

On Wednesday, Mr Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov "discussed the importance of resolving the security situation in key cities in eastern Ukraine peacefully and through dialogue and they both rejected the use of force to obtain political objectives," says US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

Mr Kerry and Mr Lavrov spoke twice by phone on Wednesday about the rise in tensions in eastern Ukraine.

In an earlier conversation with the US secretary of state, Mr Lavrov said next week's talks should focus on "dialogue among Ukrainians" and not on bilateral relations among the participants.

Mr Lavrov is expected to meet Mr Kerry, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Ukraine's Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia.

Kiev and its allies accuse Moscow of fomenting unrest in the mainly Russian-speaking east of the country as a pretext to possibly seizing more territory - a claim strongly dismissed by Russia.

"These incidents bear all the hallmarks of an orchestrated campaign of incitement, separatism and sabotage of the Ukrainian state, aided and abetted by the Russian security services," Ms Nuland said, echoing earlier comments by John Kerry that Russian special forces had been a "catalyst" behind the unrest.

image copyrightAFP
image captionPro-Russian protesters holed up inside the Luhansk security HQ have refused to give up their arms
image captionBarricades of barbed wire, tyres and even car bumpers surround the buildings

Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on Wednesday that an "anti-terrorist operation" was under way in the three regions and would be concluded within 48 hours.

But Moscow has warned Ukraine that using force to end the protests could lead to civil war.

In other developments:

  • 56 members of Ukraine's security services held inside the Luhansk offices were allowed to leave following negotiations with local politicians on Wednesday
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested state-controlled energy company Gazprom should make Ukraine pay up front for its gas, but said there should be "additional consultations" first

Russia has so far refused to recognise the new authorities in Kiev following the ousting of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in February.