Pro-Russian rebels lower demands in peace talks

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Pro-Russian rebels lower demands in peace talks
Ukrainian fighters from the Azov Battalion ride on a truck oat a checkpoint on the outskirts of Mariupol on September 2, 2014. Mariupol, a large city of about 500,000 people, is located about 50 kilometres (30 miles) from the Russian border and about 35 kilometres from Novoazovsk, which has been taken over by pro-Russian rebels. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER KHUDOTEPLY (Photo credit should read Alexander KHUDOTEPLY/AFP/Getty Images)
A Ukrainian soldier stands in an armoured personnel carrier (APC) at a checkpoint near Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, on September 2, 2014. Germany has agreed to accept for the treatment of 20 Ukrainian servicemen wounded in the southeast of the country as pro-Russian rebels allegedly backed with Moscow's manpower and weaponry open a new front in the southeast. Moscow declared NATO a 'threat' to its security on September 2 after the Western military alliance announced plans to reinforce defences in eastern Europe because of Russia's alleged stoking of war in Ukraine. AFP PHOTO/ANATOLII STEPANOV (Photo credit should read ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images)
A Ukrainian soldier stays near a checkpoint in the Donetsk area, on September 2, 2014. Germany has agreed to accept for the treatment of 20 Ukrainian servicemen wounded in the southeast of the country as pro-Russian rebels allegedly backed with Moscow's manpower and weaponry open a new front in the southeast. AFP PHOTO/ANATOLII STEPANOV (Photo credit should read ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images)
In this photo taken on Friday, Aug. 29, 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures while speaking during his meeting with participants in the youth educational forum at the Seliger youth camp near Lake Seliger, some 450 kilometres (281 miles) northwest of Moscow, in Tver region, Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin is calling on Ukraine to immediately start talks on a political solution to the crisis in eastern Ukraine, including discussing statehood.(AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service)
Demonstrators hold Ukrainian flags at a rally in support of Ukraine and against Russian involvement in front of the parliament building in Tbilisi, Georgia, Friday, Aug. 29, 2014. President Barack Obama suggested Thursday that the U.S. might impose new economic sanctions on Russia, blaming it squarely for the warfare in eastern Ukraine. But he ruled out any military options and proposed no shift in an American-led strategy that has yet to convince Moscow to halt operations against its far weaker neighbor. (AP Photo/Shakh Aivazov)
Russian President Vladimir Putin listens during a meeting on development of the Russian Far East issues in Yakutsk, Russia, Monday, Sept. 1, 2014. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday called on Ukraine to immediately start talks on a political solution to the crisis in eastern Ukraine. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)
Ukrainian soldiers park their hardware on roadside as they are waiting for the start of the march in the town of Mariupol, eastern Ukraine, Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014. Heavy shelling hit a town of Novoazovsk in southeastern Ukraine on Wednesday, the third day of an assault that has forced government troops to spread their ranks thinner along the Russian border. Ukraine claimed the shelling was coming both from pro-Russian separatists and from Russia itself. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
A Pro-Russian fighter gestures in Troitsko-Khartsyzk, 30 Km east of Donetsk, on August 28, 2014. Mortar bombardments have killed 11 civilians and wounded 22 more in east Ukraine's main rebel bastion of Donetsk over the past 24 hours, local authorities said on August 28. AFP PHOTO/ FRANCISCO LEONG (Photo credit should read FRANCISCO LEONG/AFP/Getty Images)
Ukrainian military vehicles pass down Kiev's main street during a military parade to mark the 23rd anniversary of Ukraine's Independence, in the capital Kiev,Sunday, Aug. 24, 2014.Ukraine's president has vowed to boost military spending by 40 billion hryvnia ($3 billion) in the next three years as government forces seek to overpower pro-Russian separatists in the east. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
Ukrainian missiles pass down Kiev's main street during a military parade to mark the 23rd anniversary of Ukraine's Independence, in the capital Kiev, Sunday, Aug. 24, 2014. Ukraine's president has vowed to boost military spending by 40 billion hryvnia ($3 billion) in the next three years as government forces seek to overpower pro-Russian separatists in the east.(AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
Ukrainian cadets march down Kiev's main street during a military parade on the occasion of the 23rd anniversary of Ukraine's Independence, in the capital Kiev,Sunday, Aug. 24, 2014. Ukraine's president has vowed to boost military spending by 40 billion hryvnia ($3 billion) in the next three years as government forces seek to overpower pro-Russian separatists in the east.(AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
Ukrainian soldiers march down Kiev's main street during military parade on the occasion of the 23 anniversary of Ukraine's Independence, in the capital Kiev,Sunday, Aug. 24, 2014. Ukraine's president has vowed to boost military spending by 40 billion hryvnia ($3 billion) in the next three years as government forces seek to overpower pro-Russian separatists in the east.(AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
Captured Russian paratroopers are seen in this image taken from video in Kiev on Wednesday Aug. 27. 2014. Ten Russian paratroopers were captured this week in Ukraine, adding to a growing body of evidence that Russia, despite its denials, is sending regular troops and weapons to support the separatists in their increasingly deadly fight against Ukrainian forces. (AP Photo/Channel 5) UKRAINE OUT TV OUT
Captured Russian paratroopers are seen in this image taken from video in Kiev on Wednesday Aug. 27. 2014. Ten Russian paratroopers were captured this week in Ukraine, adding to a growing body of evidence that Russia, despite its denials, is sending regular troops and weapons to support the separatists in their increasingly deadly fight against Ukrainian forces. (AP Photo/Channel 5) UKRAINE OUT TV OUT
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with participants in the youth educational forum at the Seliger youth camp near Lake Seliger, some 450 kilometres (281 miles) northwest of Moscow, in Tver region, Russia, Friday, Aug. 29, 2014. Russia's President Vladimir Putin on Friday called on pro-Russian separatists to release Ukrainian soldiers who have been surrounded by the rebels in eastern Ukraine. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, arrives at a meeting with participants in the youth educational forum at the Seliger youth camp near Lake Seliger, some 450 kilometres (281 miles) northwest of Moscow, in Tver region, Russia, Friday, Aug. 29, 2014. Russia's President Vladimir Putin on Friday called on pro-Russian separatists to release Ukrainian soldiers who have been surrounded by the rebels in eastern Ukraine. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service)
Ukrainian soldiers park their hardware on roadside as they are waiting for the start of the march in the town of Mariupol, eastern Ukraine, Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014. Heavy shelling hit a town of Novoazovsk in southeastern Ukraine on Wednesday, the third day of an assault that has forced government troops to spread their ranks thinner along the Russian border. Ukraine claimed the shelling was coming both from pro-Russian separatists and from Russia itself. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
Ukrainian soldiers ride atop an APC near the village of Sakhanka, eastern Ukraine, Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014. Separatist rebels shelled a town of Novoazovsk in southeastern Ukraine on Wednesday, raising fears they are launching a counter-offensive on government-held parts of the region, one day after the leaders of Ukraine and Russia met to discuss the escalating crisis. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
A military attache takes pictures while examining Russian-made artillery displayed in Kiev on August 29, 2014. Russian weapons and artillery, seized by Ukrainian forces from pro-Russian separatists following clashes in the east of the country, were displayed for inspection by foreign military attaches accredited in Ukraine. Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said that the government is seeking to join NATO and is submitting a relevant bill to parliament to end its official 'non-bloc' policy. AFP PHOTO/ SERGEI SUPINSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Military attaches examine Russian-made military vehicles and weapons displayed in Kiev on August 29, 2014. Russian weapons and artillery, seized by Ukrainian forces from pro-Russian separatists following clashes in the east of the country, were displayed for inspection by foreign military attaches accredited in Ukraine. Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said that the government is seeking to join NATO and is submitting a relevant bill to parliament to end its official 'non-bloc' policy. AFP PHOTO/ SERGEI SUPINSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
A military attache examines military vehicles displayed in Kiev on August 29, 2014. Russian weapons and artillery, seized by Ukrainian forces from pro-Russian separatists following clashes in the east of the country, were displayed for inspection by foreign military attaches accredited in Ukraine. Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said that the government is seeking to join NATO and is submitting a relevant bill to parliament to end its official 'non-bloc' policy. AFP PHOTO/ SERGEI SUPINSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Local residents pass by a balcony damaged during morning shelling in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014. Several shells fell this morning in a northern Donetsk neighborhood, near the airport. No human casualties were registered. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
A communal worker removes a tree that was cut down by a shell after morning shelling in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014. Several shells fell this morning in a northern Donetsk neighborhood, near the airport. No human casualties were registered.(AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
A Ukrainian government soldier drinks water atop of his military vehicle in Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014. A top commander of the pro-Russia insurgency in eastern Ukraine said Saturday that Ukrainian forces have seized a key town, leaving the rebel region's largest city of Donetsk surrounded. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
A serviceman postures on the APC of the Ukrainian troops in Donetsk region on August 9, 2014. Fighting with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine has left 13 troops dead in the last 24 hours, Ukraine's military said Saturday. AFP PHOTO/ ANATOLII STEPANOV (Photo credit should read ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images)
A serviceman prays in a tented chapel of the Ukrainian troops in Donetsk region on August 9, 2014. Fighting with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine has left 13 troops dead in the last 24 hours, Ukraine's military said Saturday. AFP PHOTO/ ANATOLII STEPANOV (Photo credit should read ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images)
A serviceman sits on a tank gun barrel while a helicopter flies on the position of the Ukrainian troops in Donetsk region on August 9, 2014. Fighting with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine has left 13 troops dead in the last 24 hours, Ukraine's military said Saturday. AFP PHOTO/ ANATOLII STEPANOV (Photo credit should read ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images)
A local woman stands on her damaged balcony after morning shelling in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014. Several shells fell this morning in a northern Donetsk neighborhood, near the airport. No human casualties were registered. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
A serviceman walks near an APC while a helicopter flies on the position of the Ukrainian troops in Donetsk region on August 9, 2014. Fighting with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine has left 13 troops dead in the last 24 hours, Ukraine's military said Saturday. AFP PHOTO/ ANATOLII STEPANOV (Photo credit should read ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Servicemen are in the WWII Soviet tank IS-3 captured from pro-Russia militants at the position of the Ukrainian troops in Donetsk region on August 9, 2014. Fighting with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine has left 13 troops dead in the last 24 hours, Ukraine's military said Saturday. AFP PHOTO/ ANATOLII STEPANOV (Photo credit should read ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Servicemen are in the WWII Soviet tank IS-3 captured from pro-Russia militants at the position of the Ukrainian troops in Donetsk region on August 9, 2014. Fighting with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine has left 13 troops dead in the last 24 hours, Ukraine's military said Saturday. AFP PHOTO/ ANATOLII STEPANOV (Photo credit should read ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Servicemen are in the WWII Soviet tank IS-3 captured from pro-Russia militants at the position of the Ukrainian troops in Donetsk region on August 9, 2014. Fighting with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine has left 13 troops dead in the last 24 hours, Ukraine's military said Saturday. AFP PHOTO/ ANATOLII STEPANOV (Photo credit should read ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Ukraine Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin answers questions during an interview at the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington, Monday, July 28, 2014. Klimkin says pro-Russian separatists are continuing to try to manipulate the wreckage of the Malaysian airliner that the United States and others have accused the rebels of shooting down.(AP Photo/J. David Ake)
Ukraine Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin answers questions during an interview at the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington, Monday, July 28, 2014. Klimkin says pro-Russian separatists are continuing to try to manipulate the wreckage of the Malaysian airliner that the United States and others have accused the rebels of shooting down.(AP Photo/J. David Ake)
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks during his briefing in Moscow, Russia, Monday, July 28, 2014. Lavrov said he is expecting OSCE observers to arrive at the Russian-Ukrainian border "in the coming days." He said they would see that accusations rebels are traveling freely into Ukraine from Russia are false. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks during his briefing in Moscow, Russia, Monday, July 28, 2014. Lavrov said he is expecting OSCE observers to arrive at the Russian-Ukrainian border "in the coming days." He said they would see that accusations rebels are traveling freely into Ukraine from Russia are false. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)
In this photo taken early Saturday, July 26, 2014, Russian and Ukraine paramedics carry an injured Ukrainian serviceman on board a Ukrainian military plane to be transported to Ukraine at Rostov-on-Don's airport, in Russia. Several Ukrainian servicemen had to cross the border into Russia after they were injured in clashes with pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine. (AP Photo/Sergei Pivovarov)
Dutch, right, and Australian policemen talk in the city of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine Sunday, July 27, 2014. A team of international police officers that had been due to visit the site of the Malaysian plane disaster in eastern Ukraine cancelled the trip Sunday after receiving reports of fighting in the area. Alexander Hug, the deputy head of a monitoring team from the OSCE in Europe, said it would be too dangerous for the unarmed mission to travel to the site from its current location in the rebel-held city of Donetsk. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
Dutch policemen walk in the city of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine Sunday, July 27, 2014. A team of international police officers that had been due to visit the site of the Malaysian plane disaster in eastern Ukraine cancelled the trip Sunday after receiving reports of fighting in the area. Alexander Hug, the deputy head of a monitoring team from the OSCE in Europe, said it would be too dangerous for the unarmed mission to travel to the site from its current location in the rebel-held city of Donetsk. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
Dutch policemen walk to their cars in the city of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine Sunday, July 27, 2014. A team of international police officers that had been due to visit the site of the Malaysian plane disaster in eastern Ukraine cancelled the trip Sunday after receiving reports of fighting in the area. Alexander Hug, the deputy head of a monitoring team from the OSCE in Europe, said it would be too dangerous for the unarmed mission to travel to the site from its current location in the rebel-held city of Donetsk. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
Ukrainian volunteers of Donbas Battalion examine weapons captured from rebels in the city of Lisichansk, Luhansk region, eastern Ukraine Saturday, July 26, 2014. Volunteers from the Donbas Battalion, a volunteer militia for a united Ukraine, told The Associated Press their units, along with the Ukrainian army, regained control of Lisichansk on Friday. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte speaks at a press conference in The Hague, Netherlands, Thursday July 24, 2014. Rutte says he is sending 40 unarmed military police to eastern Ukraine as part of a ramped-up effort to find the last victims of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 still at the crash site. Rutte told The Associated Press he is sending the police not as security for the site in rebel-held territory but as “extra hands and eyes to look for remaining remains and personal belongings” of victims. (AP Photo/Mike Corder)
Graffiti under a railway bridge commemorates the victims of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in The Hague, Netherlands, Thursday, July 24, 2014. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte says he is sending 40 unarmed military police to eastern Ukraine as part of a ramped-up effort to find the last victims of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 still at the crash site. Rutte told The Associated Press he is sending the police not as security for the site in rebel-held territory but as “extra hands and eyes to look for remaining remains and personal belongings” of victims. (AP Photo/Mike Corder)
People look at pictures of the victims of the Malaysian Airlines crash in a central square in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Thursday, July 24, 2014. Two more military aircraft carrying remains of victims from the Malaysian plane disaster arrived in the Netherlands on Thursday, while Australian and Dutch diplomats joined to promote a plan for a U.N. team to secure the crash site which has been controlled by pro-Russian rebels. (AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov)
Ukrainians tape pictures of victims of the MH17 air crash on a wall before a memorial concert in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Thursday, July 24, 2014. Two military aircraft carrying remains of victims from the Malaysian plane disaster departed for the Netherlands on July 24, while Australian and Dutch diplomats joined to promote a plan for a U.N. team to secure the crash scene which has been controlled by pro-Russian rebels. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
Malaysian forensic experts attend a memorial concert for the victims of the MH17 air crash victims in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Thursday, July 24, 2014. Two military aircraft carrying remains of victims from the Malaysian plane disaster departed for the Netherlands on July 24, while Australian and Dutch diplomats joined to promote a plan for a U.N. team to secure the crash scene which has been controlled by pro-Russian rebels. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
Malaysian forensic experts attend a memorial concert for the victims of the Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 air crash, in a central square in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Thursday, July 24, 2014. Two more military aircraft carrying remains of victims from the Malaysian plane disaster arrived in the Netherlands on Thursday, while Australian and Dutch diplomats joined to promote a plan for a U.N. team to secure the crash site which has been controlled by pro-Russian rebels. (AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov)
Pro-Russian rebels, right, followed by members of the OSCE mission, walk by plane wreckage as they arrive for a media briefing at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, near the village of Hrabove, eastern Ukraine, Tuesday, July 22, 2014. A team of Malaysian investigators visited the site along with members of the OSCE mission for the first time since last week's crash. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
A pro-Russian fighter stands guard next to bodies near a destroyed Ukrainian tank in the northern outskirts of the city of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine Tuesday, July 22, 2014. The soldiers were reportedly killed in fighting between rebels and government forces Monday. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
Pro-Russian rebels ride on a tank flying Russia's flag, on a road east of Donetsk, Monday, July 21, 2014. Another 21 bodies have been found in the sprawling fields of east Ukraine where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was downed last week, killing all 298 people aboard. International indignation over the incident has grown as investigators still only have limited access to the crash site and it remains unclear when and where the victims' bodies will be transported. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
Ukraine Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin answers questions during an interview at the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington, Monday, July 28, 2014. Klimkin says pro-Russian separatists are continuing to try to manipulate the wreckage of the Malaysian airliner that the United States and others have accused the rebels of shooting down.(AP Photo/J. David Ake)
Pro-Russian militants block the way behind Dutch and Australian forensic teams on their way to the crash site of downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 on July 28, 2014 in Donetsk. Dutch and Australian forensic investigators turned back on their way to the MH17 crash site on July 28, after 'explosions' in the area, a government spokeswoman in The Hague said. The Ukrainian military earlier said its forces were battling pro-Russian rebels for control of several eastern Ukrainian towns around the crash site of the downed Malaysia Airlines plane. AFP PHOTO/ BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
Ukrainian volunteers of Donbas Battalion examine weapons captured from rebels in the city of Lisichansk, Luhansk region, eastern Ukraine Saturday, July 26, 2014. Volunteers from the Donbas Battalion, a volunteer militia for a united Ukraine, told The Associated Press their units, along with the Ukrainian army, regained control of Lisichansk on Friday. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
Igor Strelkov, the top military commander of the self-proclaimed 'Donetsk People's Republic', delivers a press conference on July 28, 2014 in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. Ukraine's army on July 28 seized control of part of the vast site where Malaysian airliner MH17 crashed, insurgents said, as the UN announced the downing of the plane could constitute a war crime. After explosions and fighting blocked a new attempt by Dutch and Australian police to access the east Ukraine crash site, Kiev confirmed that its forces were engaged in fierce clashes with rebels nearby. AFP PHOTO/ BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
Ukrainian soldiers stay near a checkpoint in the Donetsk area, on September 2, 2014. Germany has agreed to accept for the treatment of 20 Ukrainian servicemen wounded in the southeast of the country as pro-Russian rebels allegedly backed with Moscow's manpower and weaponry open a new front in the southeast. AFP PHOTO/ANATOLII STEPANOV (Photo credit should read ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images)
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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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