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Members of the Ukrainian security services stand near a armoured personnel carrier at a checkpoint near the town of Slavyansk, east Ukraine, on May 1, 2014. (BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
Members of the Ukrainian security services stand near a armoured personnel carrier at a checkpoint near the town of Slavyansk, east Ukraine, on May 1, 2014. (BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)

Putin demands that Ukraine pull its troops from southeast Add to ...

President Vladimir Putin of Russia told Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany on Thursday that Ukraine must remove its military from the southeastern region of the country to resolve the showdown there with pro-Russian militants who have seized several official buildings, the Kremlin said.

“Putin emphasized that it was imperative today to withdraw all military units from the southeastern regions, stop the violence and immediately launch a broad national dialogue as part of the constitutional reform process involving all regions and political forces,” the Russian government said in a statement.

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Russia has repeatedly blamed Ukraine for escalating the situation and has accused the government in Kiev of deploying 11,000 soldiers in the region. The acting Ukrainian president, Oleksandr Turchinov, said Wednesday that the security services had lost control of the region to armed separatists who have seized government buildings in about a dozen towns.

On Thursday, Turchinov issued a decree reinstating military conscription, saying men 18 and above who have not reached their 25th birthday will be drafted. The decree, which is unlikely to have any immediate effect on Kiev’s efforts to bolster security, said the move was intended to halt the deterioration of public order, prevent the seizure of more state buildings and maintain the armed forces - estimated nationally to total no more than 70,000 men - in “the highest state of readiness for combat.” It did not specify the length of service.

Christiane Wirtz, a spokeswoman for the German chancellor, did not address Putin’s comments, but said Merkel had urged him to intervene in the case of seven military monitors, including four German soldiers, affiliated with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who are being held hostage by a separatist mayor in the pro-Russian stronghold of Slovyansk.

“The chancellor reminded President Putin of Russia’s responsibility as a member of the OSCE and called on the president to use his influence,” Wirtz said. The conversation was initiated by Merkel, the Kremlin said.

In a report from the Russian news agency Interfax, the pro-Russian movement in Slovyansk said it had freed two of three captured members of the Ukrainian security services in exchange for the release of an unspecified number of its own activists. The report could not be confirmed by independent sources.

In a video posted online earlier this week, the three men were shown beaten and bloodied. They were filmed wearing nothing more than their shirts and underwear, with blood oozing from behind the duct tape covering their eyes.

In a sign of the continuing insecurity in the southeast, the Ukrainian National Information Agency said pro-Russian militants seized a police station and the state prosecutor’s office in Donetsk on Thursday. The Ukrainian flag on the prosecutor’s office was hauled down and burned as several hundred people waving Russian and even Soviet flags gathered nearby, the agency reported.

Russia and the separatists have denied that they are working together, and Putin has said there are no Russian troops in eastern Ukraine. He made similar claims during the annexation of Crimea, however, and then later acknowledged the existence of a Russian operation.

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs also sought to pressure Kiev, issuing not one but two statements on the same day.

The first condemned Ukraine for scheduling a presidential vote and a referendum on decentralization for May 25 while military operations continue in the east. Some analysts believe that Russia is deliberately destabilizing the southeastern region via the separatists to undermine the attempt to elect a legitimate government in Ukraine.

The second said Moscow was “extremely concerned” about media reports that the Ukrainian government intended to use its military in a special operation in the southeast. It said the government in Kiev should “not commit criminal mistakes” and “soberly assess the gravity of the possible consequences of using force against the Ukrainian people.”

Details of the conversation between Putin and Merkel emerged shortly after Russian news agencies reported the start of what were described as training maneuvers by a newly formed Russian attack helicopter unit near the Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia. The deployment could crank up tensions with NATO, which has stationed extra fighter jets to reassure jittery former Soviet republics that worry about Russia’s ambitions.

Thursday was May Day, and in Russia tens of thousands gathered in Red Square to mark the celebration of the working man. News announcers crowed that it was the first time the celebration has been held in the square since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, after which the Kremlin studiously kept any activity with political overtones out of there. The day is still a main event for labor unions and the Communist Party.

The return to the square fit neatly with Putin’s concerted attempts to burnish the Soviet past, and the speakers and many marchers lauded the annexation of Crimea in March. The bigger annual celebration, with a thundering military parade and a speech by Putin, has been moved to May 9, Victory Day, which this year marks the 69th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany.

The interim authorities in Kiev were also reported Thursday to have ordered the expulsion of a naval attaché at Moscow’s embassy after accusing the official of “activities incompatible with diplomatic status,” a term that normally denotes espionage, according to the Interfax-Ukraine news agency.

There was no immediate response from Russia to the Ukrainian move. The diplomat, who Interfax-Ukraine said was detained Wednesday while involved in “intelligence activities,” was not identified.

The statement did not offer any detail about those activities or say whether they were linked to the occupation of government facilities in the Russian-speaking east of Ukraine.

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