US, Russia hold crisis talks before Crimea election

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United States Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague in Downing Street in central London on Friday. Kerry arrived in London on an 11th-hour mission to head off a possible Russian annexation of Crimea on the heels of a breakaway vote by the Ukrainian region. AFP PHOTO

United States Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague in Downing Street in central London on Friday. Kerry arrived in London on an 11th-hour mission to head off a possible Russian annexation of Crimea on the heels of a breakaway vote by the Ukrainian region. AFP PHOTO

LONDON: The United States (US) and Russia on Friday were set to launch a round of last-gasp diplomacy, two days before Crimea votes to secede from Ukraine in a referendum that has sparked the biggest East-West showdown since the Cold War.

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US Secretary of State John Kerry was to sit down with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in London as bloodshed returned to the streets of Ukraine, where a man was stabbed to death in clashes between pro-Moscow and pro-Kiev supporters in the eastern city of Donetsk.

The atmosphere around Ukraine remains a tinderbox, with more than 8,000 Russian troops staging drills near its border in the east, while North Atlantic Treaty Organization and US reconnaissance craft and fighters patrol the skies of the former Soviet state’s European Union neighbors to the west.

Kerry has warned Moscow that Washington and Europe could announce a “very serious” response as early as Monday if Moscow does not pull back its troops who seized control of Crimea days after a pro-Kremlin regime fell in Kiev.

Russia however has shown little willingness to negotiate and refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the Western-leaning team that has taken power in Kiev, a move that threatens to shatter President Vladimir Putin’s dream of rebuilding vestiges of the Soviet empire.

The diplomatic drama played out before a global audience at the United Nations (UN) on Thursday when Ukraine’s new prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk turned to Moscow’s UN representative Vitaly Churkin and asked him directly: “Do the Russians want war?”

Churkin replied that Russia did not. But he also repeated Putin’s argument that Yatsenyuk and his allies had conducted the “forceful overthrow” of Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovych that created a “government of victors” and not of the democratic majority of Ukraine.

On the ground, deadly violence returned to Ukraine for the first time since nearly 90 were killed in a week of carnage before the fall of the pro-Kremlin regime, when a pro-Kiev protester was stabbed to death in the mostly Russian-speaking city of Donetsk.

The local health service said one 22-year-old man was killed and 16 others wounded in clashes that erupted when pro-Kiev demonstrators were attacked by pro-Moscow protesters.

AFP

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