• Ukraine offers regions more powers to calm insurgency

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    KIEV: Ukraine’s new Western-backed president is due on Thursday to submit constitutional changes expanding regional powers in the hope the measure will help calm a bloody pro-Russian insurgency convulsing his ex-Soviet state.

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    The long-deliberated step comes a day before President Petro Poroshenko signs the final chapters of an historic European Union (EU) accord in Brussels that opens Ukraine’s way toward eventual membership and pulls it firmly out of Russia’s reach.

    The submission of constitutional changes to parliament also comes on the same day that Poroshenko gets German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande to join him for a second round of telephone diplomacy with Russian President Vladimir Putin in two days.

    Putin came under intense pressure from both European leaders and US President Barack Obama on Wednesday to rein in separatist fighters over whom he says he has no control.

    Obama warned that sweeping economic sanctions were imminent unless the Kremlin stopped “the flow of weapons and militants across the border” and persuades militants to abide by a fragile truce.

    Washington added that sanctions would be also discussed by EU leaders on Friday, when they sign the full Association Agreement with Ukraine that was ditched by the ousted pro-Russian president in November and now lies at the heart of the raging crisis.

    The US kept up the pressure on Thursday, with US Secretary of State John Kerry warning that the Kremlin had to prove within “hours” that it was working to disarm rebels.

    But 11 weeks of fighting that have already claimed more than 435 lives and brought factories in the economically vital eastern rustbelt to a virtual standstill continued on Thursday despite the ceasefire agreement.

    A spokesman for Ukraine’s “anti-terrorist operation” said 10 paratroopers were wounded in rebel attacks on government roadblocks on Wednesday.

    Ukrainian media reports said gunmen had also attacked a small airport on Thursday morning in the flashpoint village of Kramatorsk.

    Poroshenko’s one-week unilateral ceasefire order last Friday was picked up by senior separatist leaders on Monday in a seeming breakthrough in a conflict that has left some cities in ruins and displaced tens of thousands.

    But the downing by militias of a Ukrainian army helicopter on Tuesday drew a warning from Poroshenko that he may resume the campaign before the ceasefire agreement expires on Friday morning.

    Putin has urged Kiev to extend the truce to give more time to peace negotiations that the warring sides began on Monday and were due to continue on Thursday.

    AFP

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