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Pro-Russian rebels lower demands in peace talks

MOSCOW (AP) - Pro-Russian rebels softened their demand for full independence Monday, saying they would respect Ukraine's sovereignty in exchange for autonomy - a shift that reflects Moscow's desire to strike a deal at a new round of peace talks.

The insurgents' platform, released at the start of Monday's negotiations in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, represented a significant change in their vision for the future of Ukraine's eastern, mainly Russian-speaking region.

It remains unclear, however, whether the talks can reach a compromise amid the brutal fighting that has continued in eastern Ukraine. On Monday, the rebels pushed Ukrainian government forces from an airport near Luhansk, the second-largest rebel-held city, the latest in a series of military gains.

The peace talks in Minsk follow last week's meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko. The negotiations involve former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma; Russia's ambassador to Ukraine; an envoy from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and representatives of the rebels.

Yet similar talks earlier this summer produced no visible results.

Unlike the previous rounds, this time rebels said in a statement carried by Russia's state-run RIA Novosti news agency that they are willing to discuss "the preservation of the united economic, cultural and political space of Ukraine." In return, they demanded a comprehensive amnesty and broad local powers that would include being able to appoint their own local law enforcement officials.

This deal is only for eastern Ukraine. There are no negotiations on handing back Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia annexed in March, a move that cost Ukraine several major ports, half its coastline and untold billions in Black Sea oil and mineral rights.

The talks lasted for several hours Monday and were adjourned until Friday, when the parties are to discuss a cease-fire and an exchange of prisoners, rebel negotiator Andrei Purgin said, according to RIA Novosti.

The rebels' more moderate negotiating platform appeared to reflect Putin's desire to make a deal that would allow Russia to avoid more punitive Western sanctions while preserving a significant degree of leverage over its neighbor.

Over the weekend, the European Union leaders agreed to prepare a new round of sanctions that could be enacted in a week, after NATO accused Russia of sending tanks and troops into southeastern Ukraine. A NATO summit in Wales on Thursday is also expected to approve measures designed to counter Russia's aggressive actions in Ukraine.

Earlier, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said participants in Monday's talks needed to push for an immediate, unconditional cease-fire. He rejected claims by the Ukrainian government, NATO and Western nations that Russia has already sent troops, artillery and tanks across Ukraine's southeast border to reinforce the separatists.

"There will be no military intervention," Lavrov told students at Moscow State Institute of International Relations on Monday, the first day of classes for schools and universities across Russia. "We call for an exclusively peaceful settlement of this severe crisis, this tragedy."

Despite the Russian denials, Ukrainian National Security Council spokesman Col. Andriy Lysenko said on Monday that "not less than four battalions and tactical groups of the Russian armed forces are active in Ukraine." A battalion consists of about 400 soldiers.

In the past week, after losing ground to Ukrainian troops for nearly a month, the rebels opened a new front along Ukraine's southeastern Sea of Azov coast and are pushing back elsewhere. The coastal assault has raised concerns the rebels are aiming to establish a land corridor from Russia all the way to Crimea.

Lysenko said Monday that Ukrainian forces had been ordered to retreat from the airport in Luhansk in the face of an intensifying assault that he blamed on "professional artillery gunmen of the Russian armed forces."

On Sunday, missiles fired from the shore sunk one of two Ukrainian coast guard cutters 3 miles (5 kilometers) out to sea, Lysenko said. He said eight crewmen were rescued, but the Interfax news agency cited a spokesman for the border guards' service as saying two crewmen were missing and seven were rescued.

Fighting in eastern Ukraine between the separatists and the government in Kiev began in mid-April, a month after the annexation of Crimea. The fighting has killed nearly 2,600 people and forced over 340,000 to flee their homes, according to the U.N.

President Barack Obama and the leaders of NATO's other member countries will attend a summit in Wales that is expected to approve the creation of a high-readiness force to help protect member nations against potential Russian aggression.

"(This) ensures that we have the right forces and the right equipment in the right place at the right time," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Monday. "Not because NATO wants to attack anyone. But because the dangers and the threats are more present and more visible. And we will do what it takes to defend our allies."

The plan envisages creating a force of several thousand troops contributed on a rotating basis by the 28 NATO countries. Equipment and supplies for the force are to be stockpiled in Eastern Europe "so this force can travel light, but strike hard if needed," Rasmussen said.

An influential U.S. senator told reporters in Kiev that he would urge Obama to give Ukraine defensive weapons.

Decrying what he called "an invasion by Russia into Ukraine with thousands of soldiers, columns of tanks, missiles and other artillery," Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said "Ukraine has to be given defensive weapons so that it can defend itself from the aggression it is facing."

He declined to elaborate on what weapons he envisioned Ukraine receiving.

Menendez also characterized the conflict in broader terms.

"This is a Russian fight against Europe being fought on Ukrainian territory. Everything that Putin doesn't like, he sees in the Ukrainian people's desire to turn to the West," he said.

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1000|Char. 1000  Char.
Leonid September 02 2014 at 9:24 AM

If Obama kept his mouth shut and did not stir the pot, that place would be nice and quiet by now.

Flag Reply +3 rate up
Jim September 02 2014 at 7:55 AM

Chess. Not checkers. Not marbles. One baffling move at a time. We flail about and scream and yell. They smile. They have Crimea. Many of the Maiden mob are now POW's. Chess.

Flag Reply +2 rate up
jd13850 September 02 2014 at 8:13 AM

This is not a change. The demand for greater autonomy from Kiev has been the prime demand all along - not "separatism" as so often reported in Western media.

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1 reply
cptsujet jd13850 September 02 2014 at 5:52 PM

No it hasn't. Did you read the article that contradicts your statement???

Flag Reply +1 rate up
realfloopyguy September 02 2014 at 6:07 AM

They want to be able to have local police.. those horrible terrorist scum! Seriously, the fact that their demands are these while they are on the upswing says something about how jacked up the government of Kiev is.

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3 replies
tllgmtxf September 02 2014 at 11:42 AM

Why do we even have NATO any more ? A retarted monkey could have told you as soon as those "unmarked soldiers" showed up that they were in trouble and what backing did the Ukrainian people get? How many people have died because of sanctions without aid ? Not just here, think of Iraq, and other places, NATO is as outdated as a horse and buggie and when is the last time you seen a country really thank NATO for anything and give back what it got ? I hope they don't give any of these people amnesty on both sides they have to be accountible for their actions.

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1 reply
plybon72 tllgmtxf September 02 2014 at 12:34 PM

IF you knew anything about world events,, you would know that Ukraine is NOT a NATO country.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
English September 02 2014 at 10:52 AM

If their cause is a good one, why do they cover their faces?

Flag Reply 0 rate up
tatersalad03 September 02 2014 at 10:07 AM

Isn't that a picture of William Shatner in one of his Priceline commercials?

Flag Reply 0 rate up
juanelan September 02 2014 at 9:21 AM

Rebel all no good. Treat them same way Babcia treat koloradi. Squeeze small one and feed big to goose. Koloradi no good for nothing but
feed chicken and goose.

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musterseed September 02 2014 at 8:55 AM

want war then got it's.

Flag Reply 0 rate up
Gerrie September 02 2014 at 8:49 AM

after world war two Europe was carved up like a piece of meat....so what's all the fuss about now?

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