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Ukraine clears 17 villages of separatists, presses for new peace talks

Ukrainian soldiers drive a military vehicle with a torn Ukrainian flag at a checkpoint near Slavyansk on July 3, 2014.

ANDREW KRAVCHENKO/REUTERS

Ukrainian troops have cleared more than a dozen towns of pro-Russia separatists but Russia is still moving forces close to Ukraine and rebels have attacked border posts from both sides of the border, a top security official said Friday.

The statements from national security council secretary Andriy Parubiy came as no new peace talks were in sight four days after a ceasefire expired.

Parubiy said government forces were attacking rebel positions with artillery and planes and that 17 villages had been recaptured since a unilateral cease fire expired Monday. He said Ukrainian forces now control 23 of the 36 local regions within Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, the two regions along the Russian border where the insurgency is centred.

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CEASEFIRE: POROSHENKO PROPOSES NEW CRISIS TALKS

Ukraine's President has proposed a time and place for holding talks on the crisis in eastern Ukraine on Saturday but is waiting for a response from the other side, his website said on Friday.

It said President Petro Poroshenko had made the comments by telephone to European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

The "contact group" is meant to work out conditions for a ceasefire. It includes a former Ukrainian president, Moscow's ambassador to Kiev and a high-ranking official from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

KIEV: DRAFT LAW AIMS TO TURN TIDE IN 'GAS WAR'

Ukraine's parliament gave preliminary approval on Friday to a draft law that would allow the Kiev government to exert tighter control over the energy sector in the face of dwindling natural-gas supplies after Russia cut off exports last month.

The parliament also approved, in a first reading, a bill that would allow consortiums with European or U.S. companies to operate Ukraine's aging gas distribution system and storage facilities.

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"Russia is trying to tighten as many screws as possible on us," Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told parliament, urging it to give his government the right to declare a "state of emergency" in the energy sector. "A gas war has been rolled out against us. The country is on the brink [of energy collapse]."

Russia, the main supplier of natural gas for Europe via Ukraine, cut off supplies to the ex-Soviet republic on June 16 in a dispute over unpaid bills.

The head of Ukraine's state energy company, Naftogaz, said the government's proposed legislation could help Ukraine get through the winter without Russian gas by reducing consumption by around 20 per cent. "If we do what we plan, then we'll get through the winter with gas from Europe," Andriy Kobolev said.

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