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Georgian ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili has been detained in Ukraine’s capital Kiev, days after his supporters freed him from a police van.

Mikheil Saakashvili’s detention, first reported on his Facebook page, was confirmed by Ukraine’s Prosecutor General.

He is suspected of receiving financing from a criminal group linked to ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

On December 5, Mikheil Saakashvili was dragged from his home in Kiev and arrested.

The former president was later freed from police custody by a crowd of his supporters. After he was freed, he urged the crowd to impeach Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko, a former ally.

Image source Wikimedia

Georgia presidential election ends Mikheil Saakashvili’s rule

Batumi: the Las Vegas of the Black Sea

Mikheil Saakashvili has been leading anti-corruption rallies against Petro Poroshenko.

The Ukrainian authorities responded by giving him a deadline of 24 hours to hand himself in.

Mikheil Saakashvili’s detention was part of an operation “to disrupt a plan of revenge of pro-Kremlin forces in Ukraine”, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko said on December 5.

Prosecutors, who say Mikheil Saakashvili is being funded by businessmen close to Russia, released audio and video recordings which they say proved he had received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the criminal group.


Mikheil Saakashvili said the recordings were fake.

If found guilty, the former president could face up to five years in jail.

Mikheil Saakashvili also faces the threat of extradition to Georgia, where he is wanted on corruption charges. He claims the accusations are politically motivated.

He previously served as governor of the southern Odessa region after being appointed by Petro Poroshenko in 2015.

Before moving to Ukraine, Mikheil Saakashvili served for almost 10 years as president of Georgia.

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Russia has announced the delivery of new air defense missiles to Crimea, in a move scheduled before the latest tension with Ukraine.

The S-400 Triumph missile systems were earmarked for troops in Crimea last month, Russian media said at the time.

In a statement on August 12, the Russian military said that once the systems were set up, they would be used in exercises.

Russia, which annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, said this week it had foiled a Ukraine sabotage mission.

The Kremlin accused Kiev of trying to send saboteurs into Crimea and reported the deaths of a soldier and a secret police officer in an operation to foil the alleged plot.

Denying the accusations, Ukraine placed its troops on alert along its de facto border with Crimea, and along its front line with Russian-backed rebels holding parts of Donetsk and Luhansk in the east.Crimea annexation 2014

A statement by Russia’s Southern Military District, which incorporates Crimea, said the missiles had been received by an air defense regiment in Crimea.

According to the statement, quoted by Russian news agencies, the missiles were successfully tested on the Kapustin Yar test range in southern Russia.

Russia’s Interfax news agency says t

The missiles are designed to hit airborne targets at a range of up to 249 miles and ballistic missiles at a range of up to 38 miles, flying at speeds of up to 3 miles per second.

The missiles are being installed in Crimea to protect Russia’s Hmeimim air base in Syria among other things, it adds.

In November 2015, Russia deployed S-400s at Hmeimim, after Turkey downed a Russian Su-24 bomber.

Ukraine’s envoy to the UN asked Russia on August 11 to prove its allegations, and said some 40,000 Russian troops were massed on the Crimea-Ukraine border.

His Russian counterpart told the UN Security Council of Moscow’s “concern and outrage” at the alleged incursions.

Russian state TV broadcast an apparent confession by a man named as Yevhen Panov, saying he was part of a Ukrainian defense ministry force sent into Crimea “to carry out acts of sabotage”.

Yevhen Panov said the group also included officers of Ukraine’s military intelligence.

Reports in Ukraine say Yevhen Panov is a former volunteer fighter who has more recently been associated with a charitable organization called Heroes of Ukraine.

Crimea was annexed by Russia after a majority of its mostly ethnic Russian population voted to secede in an unrecognized referendum on self-determination.

The annexation of Crimea was relatively bloodless, in sharp contrast to the ferocious fighting which followed in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Ukrainian singer Jamala has won the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest, held in Stockholm, Sweden.

Ukraine scored 534 points with Jamala’s song 1944 – about the deportation of Crimean Tatars under Josef Stalin.

Australia finished second with 511 points, while Russia – which was the favorite going into the competition – was third with 491 points.

Jamala is the first ever Crimean Tatar to perform at the Eurovision Song Contest and caused controversy ahead of the show over her political song.

1944 references the year when Josef Stalin deported almost all of the ethnic group from its native region of Crimea in what was then Soviet Russia (later to become part of Ukraine).

Jamala had dedicated the song to her great grandmother who was forced to leave along with a quarter of a million Tatars, as a collective punishment for those who had collaborated during the Nazi occupation.

The song had been expected to finish in the top three but in a surprise result beat favorites Russia, which annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and had been angered by the song.Ukraine Jamala wins Eurovision 2016

Collecting her award, Jamala thanked Europe for their votes, adding: “I really want peace and love to everyone.”

Speaking about her win backstage after, Jamala said: “It’s amazing. I was sure that if you talk about truth it really can touch people.”

This year, organizer introduced a new scoring system was introduced this year, providing separate scores for each country’s jury and public votes, rather than combining them as in previous years.

At the half-way point after the juries’ votes had been counted, Australia – which had been invited back to perform after last year’s 60th anniversary celebrations – topped the scoreboard with 320 points and a firm lead over Ukraine’s 211 points.

However, Dami Im’s Sound of Silence failed to strike the same chord with the public and was voted the fourth most popular song overall.

The new scoring system highlighted the disparity between the preferences of the juries and the public.

It allowed Poland, which was in penultimate place with seven points from the jury, to leap to eighth when the public’s 227 points were taken into account.

Germany’s Jamie-Lee finished in last place as her song Ghost received 11 points.

Justin Timberlake performed his new single during the interval of the show.

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Commemoration ceremonies are being held in Ukraine to mark the 30th anniversary of the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl.

In the early hours of April 26, 1986, sirens were sounded at the same moment as the first explosion at the reactor.

The meltdown at the plant remains the worst nuclear disaster in history.

An uncontrolled reaction blew the roof off, spewing out a cloud of radioactive material which drifted across Ukraine’s borders, into Russia, Belarus and across a swathe of northern Europe.

The relatives of those who died attended candle-lit vigils at several churches, including in the capital Kiev and in Slavutych, a town built to re-house workers who lived near the nuclear plant.

Some former residents returned to the area, now derelict and overgrown, ahead of the anniversary. They lived in Pripyat, the town inhabited by Chernobyl workers which was abandoned in the wake of the accident.Chernobyl disaster 30th anniversary

Levels of radioactivity remain high in the surrounding area. A charity, Bridges to Belarus, is warning that a number of babies in a region close to Ukraine’s border are still being born with serious deformities, while an unusually high rate of people have rare forms of cancer.

Donors around the world pledged €87.5 million ($99 million) on April 25 towards a new underground nuclear waste facility in the region. Ukraine will need to commit a further €10 million in order to complete the new storage site.

Work began in 2010 on a 25,000-tonne, €2.1 billion sarcophagus to seal the uranium left in the damaged reactor, thought to be about 200 tonnes.

Experts fear that if parts of the aging reactor collapse, further radioactive material could be spewed into the atmosphere.

The number of people killed by the Chernobyl disaster remains disputed. A report in 2005 by the UN-backed Chernobyl Forum concluded that fewer than 50 people died as a result of exposure to radiation, most of them workers killed immediately after the disaster, but some survived until as late as 2004.

The forum estimated up to 9,000 people could eventually die from radiation exposure, although Greenpeace claims the figure could be as high as 93,000.

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Ukraine has decided to ban all Russian planes from using its airspace after exports of Russian gas to Ukraine have been halted by state-controlled giant Gazprom.

The decision was announced by Ukrainian PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk at a televised government meeting.

Gazprom said it had halted gas deliveries to Ukraine because it had used up all the gas it had paid for.

Ukraine said it had stopped buying from Gazprom because it could get cheaper gas from Europe.

The airspace ban applies to military planes as well as civil airliners.

PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk said: “The Ukrainian government has decided to ban all transit flights for all Russian airlines in Ukraine’s airspace.

“The government is instructing [aviation authority] Ukraerorukh, in line with the norms of international law, to inform the Russian Federation that Russian airlines and Russian aircraft do not have the right to use Ukraine’s airspace any longer.”Ukraine closes airspace for Russia

Following previous clashes over gas supplies, the two countries had agreed that Ukraine would pay for its gas in advance.

Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller said on November 25 that Ukraine had already used up all the gas it had paid for.

In a statement, Alexei Miller said that “deliveries have been stopped until the receipt of new payments from the Ukrainian company.

“The refusal to buy Russian gas will create serious risks for the reliable transit of gas to Europe through Ukraine and for the supply of gas to Ukrainian consumers during the upcoming winter,” he added.

However, Arseniy Yatsenyuk dismissed Alexei Miller’s comments out of hand.

The prime minister said his government had decided to stop buying gas from Russia as it could get a better deal elsewhere.

“The government has made the decision to order [Ukraine’s national oil and gas company] Naftohaz to stop buying Russian gas.

“They got it all wrong. It is not them who are not supplying gas to us, it is us who are not buying gas from them. This is being done because offers that have come from our European partners – price offers – are much better than the offers from our eastern neighbor.”

Russia cut off gas to Ukraine in June 2014 as the conflict between the government in Kiev and pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine escalated.

However, it resumed them following the pre-payment deal.

About 15% of gas used in Europe travels through Ukraine. The EU has been holding talks aimed at keeping supplies running between the two sides.

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Crimea has been left without power after pylons carrying power lines which supply electricity from Ukraine were reportedly blown up on November 21.

According to local reports, all four power lines were cut, leaving the region’s two million inhabitants without electricity.

Images circulated on social media appeared to show Ukrainian flags attached to the damaged pylons.

Crimea was annexed by Russia in 2014, but the Ukrainian authorities have continued to supply power to the area.

Crimean authorities said they had managed to partially reconnect the cities of Simferopol, Yalta and Saky using generators.

Photo AFP

Photo AFP

Crimea’s Deputy Prime Minister Mikhail Sheremet said the peninsula’s hospitals had backup power sources and would not be affected.

The Crimean Emergencies Ministry has declared a state of emergency and put rescue teams on high alert.

“Crimea is completely cut off,” Viktor Plakida, the director of Crimea Energy, told Russia’s Tass news agency.

A local emergency response official told Russia’s Tass news agency that Crimea was “operating in standalone mode”.

Crimea can only produce half the power it needs, Mikhail Sheremet said.

Two of the four main power lines were cut in an earlier attack on November 20, reports said.

Ukrainian authorities said they encountered activists blockading the site when they tried to repair the damaged pylons.

“The nature of the damage shows that it took place as a result of shelling or the use of explosive devices,” Ukraine’s state energy company Ukrenergo said in a statement.

Crimean Tatars, an ethnic group native to the peninsula who oppose Russian rule, held a protest at the site of the broken power lines in Kherson region, Russia’s RIA news agency reported.

As of Sunday, October 25, Ukraine will stop direct flights to Russia, as new sanctions initiated by Kiev come into effect.

Moscow first called Kiev’s ban on Russian airlines “madness”, then announced that it would mirror the move.

Ukraine now says flights will end at midnight on October 24, after last-minute crisis talks failed.

Up to 70,000 passengers a month will be affected.

The sanctions are intended to punish Russia for annexing Crimea and supporting armed rebels in eastern Ukraine. The fact that they have been introduced now, when a ceasefire is finally holding on the ground, shows how bitter relations remain.

Photo Reuters

Photo Reuters

Russia has accused Ukraine of shooting itself in the foot with the move, pointing out that most passengers are Ukrainian travelling to work in Russia, visiting relatives or in transit.

Two-thirds of all passengers travel on Russian airlines.

Russia’s transport minister has estimated that the loss in ticket sales to both countries will run to around $110 million a year.

The ban is already angering passengers from both countries.

Last-minute talks to find a compromise are under way – so far to no avail – and the chances of success look slim in this climate.

As of October 25, passengers will be forced to take longer, more expensive routes via third countries, or to brace themselves for a 13-hour trip by train.

Ukraine is to receive a €1.8 billion ($2 billion) loan from the European Union.

The move is described as a landmark deal for a non-EU member.

The agreement was signed at an EU summit in Riga, Latvia, with the leaders of six post-Soviet nations.

The EU loan aims to help cash-strapped Ukraine implement economic reforms, as fighting with pro-Russian rebels in the east has taken a heavy toll.

Ukraine is under pressure from the EU and other international lenders to curb corruption and liberalize the economy.

The EU also pledged €200 million in grants to Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, which have signed association agreements with the 28-nation bloc.

The other “Eastern Partnership” countries are Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus.Riga EU Summit 2015

Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine are pushing for full integration with the EU, while Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus prefer limited co-operation with the bloc.

In addition, Armenia and Belarus are members of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, seen by some analysts as a rival project to the EU.

The Riga summit declaration criticized Russia for its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula last year.

“The acts against Ukraine and the events in Georgia since 2014 have shown that the fundamental principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity within internationally recognized borders cannot be taken for granted in the 21st Century on the European continent,” it said.

“The EU remains committed in its support to the territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty of all its partners.”

The declaration recognized “the sovereign right of each partner freely to choose the level of ambition and the goals to which it aspires” in ties with the EU.

At a news conference, European Council President Donald Tusk said he wanted to be as “ambitious as possible” in granting Georgia and Ukraine a visa-free regime, provided key conditions were met. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said “enormous progress” had been made on the issue.

Georgia and Ukraine countries had hoped for a positive decision on the visa issue at the Riga summit, but it will not happen until next year at the earliest.

Last year, Moldova was granted visa-free travel to the EU.

Ukraine’s crisis erupted in November 2013, when the previous Ukrainian government backed away from closer ties with the EU. The mass protests sparked by that move toppled President Viktor Yanukovych and led to the conflict in the east.

Ukraine’s economy continued its contraction in Q1 2015, and Kiev faces huge debt repayments to its international creditors.

Germany was told of the risk of flying over eastern Ukraine shortly before Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down last July, but failed to pass on the alert, reports say.

According to diplomatic cables sent two days before the crash, the situation had become “very alarming”, German media say.

The cables cited the downing on July 14 of a Ukrainian air force plane at a height of about 20,000ft.

Flight MH17 was brought down three days later, with the loss of 298 lives.

The Malaysia Airlines plane had been flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur and 196 of those on board were Dutch.

Photo PA

Photo PA

A Dutch-led international inquiry says one of the main scenarios for the disaster was that the plane was shot down by a Russian-made Buk missile launcher.

Investigators have appealed for witnesses to the launcher’s arrival in a rebel-controlled area shortly before the crash. Their final report is due to be published in October.

According to German public TV channels NDR and WDR and Sueddeutsche Zeitung, the foreign ministry cables had assessed the downing of the Antonov military plane on 14 July 2014 as a significant development because of its altitude at the time.

The Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 had been flying at 33,000 ft when it was hit.

German intelligence had repeatedly warned of the risk to aviation security, the report adds.

A Lufthansa source tells German media that no communiqué was given to the airline of a change in the situation.

Three Lufthansa planes flew over the area on the day of the disaster – including one 20 minutes beforehand – and it was pure chance that none was hit, the report says. Other German airlines had been avoiding the region for some time.

Viktor Yanukovych Jr., the younger son of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has drowned in Lake Baikal in Russia, reports say.

Earlier Russian and Ukrainian media reports said Viktor Yanukovych Jr. died after his vehicle fell through ice on Lake Baikal in the south of the Russian region of Siberia.

Reports say Viktor Yanukovych’s son had been taking part in a sporting event when the VW van plunged into the water.

Five other people in the vehicle escaped, Ukrainian news website Levvy Bereg quoted sources from his inner circle as saying.Viktor Yanukovych dead at 33

Russian website RBK quoted local officials as saying the incident happened on March 21, after the group drove on to the ice to take photographs.

Viktor Yanukovych Jr., 33, was known for his passion for extreme driving.

His death is the latest of several involving people with ties to former President Viktor Yanukovych.

Oleksandr Peklushenko, a former regional governor, was found dead in Ukraine earlier this month in what authorities said appeared to be a suicide.

Five other officials also died in mysterious circumstances this year.

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Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for the first time since he accused Russia of lying about its role in Ukraine’s war.

The talks in Geneva coincide with a UN report on human rights violations and the humanitarian crisis in east Ukraine.

The UN says the conflict has claimed at least 6,000 lives, with hundreds killed in the past few weeks alone.

A fragile ceasefire is holding despite some fighting in recent days.

At his meeting in Geneva, John Kerry is also expected to raise the brutal murder of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov in Moscow on February 27.

Boris Nemtsov, who was shot on a bridge near the Kremlin, had been planning an anti-war rally and was said to be working on a report to expose the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine.

His allies accused the Kremlin of involvement but Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned the murder as “vile” and vowed to find the killers.John Kerry to meet Sergei Lavrov in Geneva

John Kerry will press for an investigation that he said should examine not only who pulled the trigger, but who ordered, funded and co-ordinated Boris Nemtsov’s murder.

Separately, John Kerry is also expected to renew negotiations with Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on Tehran’s nuclear program.

There is an end of March deadline to reach agreement on limiting the program, in return for an easing of economic sanctions on Iran.

The talks on Ukraine are expected to be tense after John Kerry last week accused Russian officials of lying to him about Moscow’s support for rebels in eastern Ukraine.

During a visit to London on February 21, John Kerry accused the Kremlin of “craven behavior” in its support for the rebels in east Ukraine, undermining a ceasefire.

Fighting began in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions last April, a month after Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula.

The UN estimates that at least 1.25 million have fled their homes, and believes that the real number of fatalities could be considerably higher than the 6,000 it has given.

In its latest report, released on March 2, it refers to credible accounts of heavy weapons and foreign fighters continuing to flow into eastern Ukraine from Russia.

The Ukrainian government, Western leaders and NATO say there is clear evidence that Russia is helping the rebels with heavy weapons and soldiers.

Independent experts echo that accusation but Moscow denies it, insisting that any Russians serving with the rebels are “volunteers”.

Both sides in the conflict have been pulling back some heavy weaponry from the front line – one of the conditions of the ceasefire agreement signed in the Belarusian capital Minsk last month.

Monitors from the OSCE security group have reported weapons movements on both sides but say it is too early to confirm a full withdrawal. Meanwhile violence continued over the weekend.

Vladimir Putin’s critic and former Deputy PM Boris Nemtsov has been shot dead in central Moscow, Russian officials say.

An unidentified gunman, in a car, shot Boris Nemtsov four times in the back as he crossed a bridge in view of the Kremlin, police say.

The Russian opposition leader died hours after appealing for support for a march on March 1 in Moscow against the war in Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has condemned the murder, the Kremlin says.

Vladimir Putin has assumed “personal control” of the investigation into the killing, said his spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

It “bears the hallmarks of a contract killing,” said Dmitry Peskov.

President Barack Obama condemned the “brutal murder” and called on the Russian government to conduct a “prompt, impartial and transparent investigation”.

Thorbjorn Jagland, secretary general of the Council of Europe, condemned the killing, saying in a tweet: “I am shocked and appalled key opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot. Killers must be brought to justice.”Boris Nemtsov killed in central Moscow

In a recent interview, Boris Nemtsov had said he feared Vladimir Putin would have him killed because of his opposition to the war in Ukraine.

Boris Nemtsov, 55, served as first deputy prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s.

He had earned a reputation as an economic reformer while governor of one of Russia’s biggest cities, Nizhny Novgorod.

Falling out of favor with Boris Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, he became an outspoken opposition politician.

Boris Nemtsov was shot at around 23:40 on Friday, February 27, while crossing Moskvoretsky Bridge accompanied by a woman, Russia’s interior ministry said.

He was shot with a pistol from a white car which fled the scene, a police source told Russia’s Interfax news agency.

According to Russian-language news website Meduza, “several people” got out of a car and shot him.

One of the politician’s colleagues in his RPR-Parnassus party, Ilya Yashin, confirmed Boris Nemtsov’s death.

Flowers were left at the site of the shooting through the night.

In his last tweet, Boris Nemtsov sent out an appeal for Russia’s divided opposition to unite at an anti-war march he was planning for Sunday.

“If you support stopping Russia’s war with Ukraine, if you support stopping Putin’s aggression, come to the Spring March in Maryino on March 1,” he wrote.

Speaking earlier this month to Russia’s Sobesednik news website, Boris Nemtsov had spoken of his fears for his own life.

“I’m afraid Putin will kill me,” he said on February 10.

“I believe that he was the one who unleashed the war in the Ukraine,” Boris Nemtsov added.

“I couldn’t dislike him more.”

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At least two people have been killed and 10 more injured after a bomb exploded at a rally in Ukraine’s second city Kharkiv.

The rally was one of several being held to mark a year since the Kiev uprising that led to the fall of pro-Russia leader Viktor Yanukovych.

Security forces have detained four suspects in the attack, officials say.

Kharkiv lies outside the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine, where a ceasefire appears finally to be taking hold.

The Ukrainian government has agreed to start pulling back heavy weapons from February 22, and the rebels said they would start the process on February 24.

The pullback will not be completed until at least March 8, five days later than the deadline set at peace talks in Minsk this month.

Another key element of the Minsk deal moved forward on February 21 when the Ukrainian government and the rebels exchanged 191 prisoners.

The ceasefire continues to be breached, notably in Debaltseve, a key transport hub captured by the rebels in recent days, an OSCE official said.Ukraine bomb blasts at Kharkiv rally

Alexander Hug added that the humanitarian situation there was “relatively catastrophic”.

“The local population reported to us that there is no water, no food, no gas, no heating, no electricity, no medication. And all the buildings that our monitors have seen (…) have been affected by the fighting,” he said.

The explosion in Kharkiv happened at 13:20 as people gathered near the city’s Palace of Sport for a march in support of national unity, Ukrainian media say.

Officials initially said an explosive device had been thrown from a car but later said it had been buried in the snow.

“Security service detained persons who may have been involved in the preparation and carrying out of crimes of a terrorist nature in Kharkiv, including the explosion,” security spokesman Markian Lubkivskyi wrote on his Facebook page.

He later said the four suspects were Ukrainian citizens who had received instruction and weapons in the Russian city of Belgorod, just across the border.

Markian Lubkivskyi also posted a picture of a rocket launcher which he said the suspects were planning to use in attacks in the city.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko described the attack as “a bold attempt to expand the territory of terrorism” and promised to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Before Sunday’s explosion, Kharkiv, in the north-east of Ukraine, had seen more than a dozen attacks over three months, including an explosion in a bar used by pro-government activists which injured more than 10 people in November.

That attack was blamed on a pro-Russian group calling itself the Kharkiv Partisans.

Meanwhile, thousands of Ukrainians have been taking part in “dignity marches” in the capital Kiev and other cities, remembering the victims of sniper fire during protests last February.

European leaders including European Council president Donald Tusk, German President Joachim Gauck and the leaders of Lithuania, Poland and Moldova have been attending in Kiev.

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President Petro Poroshenko says the Ukrainian troops are making an “organized” withdrawal from the embattled town of Debaltseve.

Petro Poroshenko said 80% of Ukraine’s forces had left on Wednesday morning, February 18, with more to follow.

Fighting has raged over the transport hub, with pro-Russian rebels seizing control of most areas, despite a ceasefire deal.

Russia’s foreign minister said Ukrainian forces had been encircled and were forced to battle their way out.

“I’m reckoning that common sense will prevail,” said Sergei Lavrov as he urged the rebels to provide troops who surrendered with food and clothes.

Earlier, Vice-President Joe Biden accused Russia of violating the accord, agreed in Minsk last week.

Sergei Lavrov told reporters that the rebel attack in Debaltseve did not violate the ceasefire agreement, because the town was part of the rebel-held area at the time the peace deal was signed.Ukraine troops retreat from Debaltseve

Eyewitnesses saw dozens of tanks and columns of weary Ukrainian troops retreating from Debaltseve on February 18.

“This morning the Ukrainian armed forces together with the National Guard completed an operation for a planned and organized withdrawal from Debaltseve,” the Ukrainian president said in a statement before travelling to the frontline in the east.

“As of now we can say that 80% of our units have left,” he said.

“We are expecting another two columns [to leave].”

The withdrawal comes after Russian President Vladimir Putin urged Ukraine’s troops in Debaltseve to surrender.

International observers monitoring the truce have been unable to enter the town.

It has become a key prize for rebels and government forces, as it sits on a strategic railway line linking rebel-held Donetsk and Luhansk.

Most of its 25,000 population has been evacuated but about 7,000 civilians are still believed trapped by the fighting.

The ceasefire, which came into effect on February 15, has been broadly observed elsewhere.

Rebel leaders in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic said on February 18 they had begun to withdraw heavy weaponry from the parts of the frontline where the ceasefire was holding.

The withdrawal was due to start no later than the second day after the truce came into effect and be completed within two weeks, creating buffer zones 30-85 miles wide.

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Just one day after a peace deal was reached in Minsk new shelling has been reported around the rebel-held east Ukrainian cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.

There are no confirmed reports of casualties. Both cities are near the front line where the pro-Russian rebels face government forces.

The ceasefire agreed in Minsk, Belarus, is to begin in eastern Ukraine on February 15 at 00:00 local time.

The EU has warned Russia of additional sanctions if the deal is not respected.

On Friday morning, a military spokesman in Kiev said eight members of Ukraine’s military had been killed in fighting against separatists in the past 24 hours.

Meanwhile, rebels said seven civilians had been killed, reported AFP. Two people were also killed on Friday morning when rebels shelled a cafe in Shchastya, near Luhansk, said the head of the Kiev-controlled regional administration.Ukraine peace talks Minsk 2015

“So this is how a comprehensive ceasefire is prepared for,” said Hennadiy Moskal in a statement.

He was echoing wider doubts about the peace deal agreed following marathon negotiations between Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France.

Pro-Russian rebels have signed the agreement, which also includes weapon withdrawals and prisoner exchanges, but key issues remain to be settled.

A new round of EU asset freezes and travel bans against 19 Ukrainian separatists and Russians – in response to deadly fighting in the city of Mariupol in January – will come into effect on Monday regardless of the latest deal.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel says wider measures could be implemented if the ceasefire is not upheld.

She has called the deal “a glimmer of hope”, adding: “It is very important that words are followed by actions.”

Russia has reaffirmed it is playing no direct role in the conflict, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisting it is only a “guarantor”:

“It is not a party that has to take action in this matter. We simply cannot do that physically, because Russia is not a participant in this conflict,” he said.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko says the rival military commanders will hold direct talks – including on the withdrawal of heavy armor to create a buffer zone.

He warned that implementation of the agreement, reached by leaders in the Belarusian capital Minsk, would be difficult.

Another sticking point is the disputed town of Debaltseve, a strategically key government-held town which rebels claim to have surrounded but which Ukraine refuses to surrender.

Further talks will also be held on self-rule in parts of Donetsk and Luhansk separatist regions.

The truce is to be monitored by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) – but with only 412 international monitors in Ukraine, including 226 in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, some analysts have expressed doubt that they are there in adequate numbers to do the job.

Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of supplying weapons and personnel to the rebels but Russia denies this.

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Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was caught on camera when he nearly pulled a chair out from under Russian President Vladimir Putin just before Minsk negotiations on Ukrainian conflict.Alexander Lukashenko pulls chair on Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin had to give in and wait for his seat, as Alexander Lukashenko finished his conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The footage became viral on internet with users creating a looping Coub video clip, backed by jolly music, running the footage backwards to reverse the order of events.

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The US is studying the option of supplying lethal defensive arms to Ukraine if diplomacy fails to end the crisis in the east, President Barack Obama has said.

Russia had violated “every commitment” made in the failing Minsk agreement, he added, after talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on a new peace deal.

Barack Obama has come under pressure from senior US officials to supply arms, despite objections from Angela Merkel.

Russia denies accusations of sending troops and supplying the rebels.

The latest diplomatic efforts come amid renewed fighting between the pro-Russia rebels and Ukrainian government troops, with fighting centered around the strategic railway hub of Debaltseve.

The rebels said on February 9 they had cut off a key supply road to the town, which is near the rebel-held city of Donetsk, but the military says the battle is ongoing.Barack Obama and Angela Merkel Ukraine talks 2015

Ukrainian government officials say nine soldiers and at least seven civilians have been killed in fighting over the last 24 hours.

The crisis in Ukraine has already claimed more than 5,300 lives and displaced 1.5 million people from their homes.

Angela Merkel met Barack Obama in Washington on February 9 to update him on Franco-German efforts to revive last year’s Minsk peace plan, which collapsed amid fighting over the winter.

The detailed proposals have not been released but the plan is thought to include a demilitarized zone of 50-70km (31-44 miles) around the current front line.

Four-way talks between Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France are due to be held in Belarus’s capital Minsk on February 11 to discuss the proposals.

Speaking alongside Angela Merkel, President Barack Obama said the option of lethal defensive weapons for the Ukrainian government remained on the table.

“If, in fact, diplomacy fails, what I’ve asked my team to do is to look at all options,” he said, adding that offering lethal arms was only one of the options under consideration.

Angela Merkel, who has made it clear she opposes sending lethal arms, acknowledged setbacks in efforts to reach a diplomatic solution with Russia over Ukraine, but said that they would continue.

Meanwhile Barack Obama criticized Russian aggression in Ukraine, saying that the borders of Europe could not be “redrawn at the barrel of a gun”.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has held “constructive” talks with French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on efforts to end the conflict in east Ukraine, a Kremlin spokesman says.

Dmitry Peskov said Vladimir Putin, Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel met for more than five hours.

Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande had brought to Moscow a peace proposal whose details have not been released.

Russia is accused of arming pro-Russian separatists – a claim it denies.

The Kremlin also rejects claims by Ukraine and the West that its regular troops are fighting alongside the rebels in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Clashes have left nearly 5,400 people dead since April 2014, the UN says.

A September ceasefire, signed in Minsk in Belarus, has failed to stop the violence. Since then the rebels have seized more ground, raising alarm in Kiev and among Ukraine’s backers.

Photo Reuters

Photo Reuters

The peace proposal Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande took to Moscow on February 6 was crafted with the Ukrainian government the day before.

After the two leaders’ discussions with Vladimir Putin, French officials told AFP they had been “constructive and substantial”.

Dmitry Peskov said work was continuing on a joint document. Further talks will be held by phone on February 7, he added.

Earlier, Francois Hollande said the aim was not just a ceasefire but a “comprehensive agreement” – although Angela Merkel said it was “totally open” whether that could be achieved.

Major questions any plan would have to address include the route of any new ceasefire line – given the rebel advances of recent weeks – how to enforce it, and the future status of the conflict zone.

Moscow is still denying any direct role in the conflict, while Kiev insists above all that Ukraine must remain united, our correspondent says.

Washington is considering Ukrainian pleas for better weaponry to fend off the rebels, raising European fears of an escalation in the conflict and spurring the latest peace bid.

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French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are meeting Russia’s Vladimir Putin to try to end escalating fighting in Ukraine.

Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande are taking to Moscow a peace proposal crafted in the Ukrainian capital Kiev on February 5, but details have not been released.

Meanwhile a truce has allowed civilians to leave Debaltseve, at the heart of the latest fighting in eastern Ukraine.

Russia is accused of arming pro-Russian separatists – a claim it denies.

The Kremlin also rejects claims by Ukraine and the West that its regular troops are fighting alongside the rebels in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Clashes have left nearly 5,400 people dead since April 2014, the UN says.

A September ceasefire, signed in Minsk, Belarus, has failed to stop the violence. Since then the rebels have seized more ground, raising alarm in Kiev and among Ukraine’s backers.Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande in Moscow peace talks

Before he left for Moscow on February 6, Francois Hollande said the goal of his visit was not just a ceasefire, but a “comprehensive agreement” – though Angela Merkel said it was “totally open” whether that could be achieved.

Meanwhile Vice-President Joe Biden accused Russia of “continuing to escalate the conflict” and “ignoring every agreement”.

Joe Biden was speaking in Brussels, where he is meeting top EU officials.

He accused Vladimir Putin of continuing “to call for new peace plans as his tanks roll through the Ukrainian countryside”.

He said Russia could “not be allowed to redraw the map of Europe”.

Ukraine is also set to dominate an annual multi-lateral security conference in Munich.

The fighting has intensified in recent weeks after a rebel offensive, and a temporary truce was declared in Debaltseve on February 6, where Ukrainian forces are fighting to hold the town against surrounding rebels.

Convoys of buses travelled to the town on Friday to evacuate civilians who had been forced to shelter underground from the bombing.

They were escorted by monitors from the OSCE security watchdog, Reuters reported.

Washington is considering Ukrainian pleas for better weaponry to fend off the rebels, raising European fears of an escalation in the conflict and spurring the latest peace bid.

On February5, Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel examined the peace proposal with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, without releasing any details.

Moscow says it is ready for “constructive dialogue” – though still denying any direct role in the conflict – while Kiev insists above all that Ukraine must remain united.

A spokesman for the Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin would discuss “the fastest possible end to the civil war in south-eastern Ukraine”.

Some 1.2 million Ukrainians have fled their homes since April 2014, when the rebels seized a big swathe of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions following Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande have arrived in Ukraine’s capital Kiev to present a new peace initiative.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who is also in Kiev, said the US wanted a diplomatic solution, but would not close its eyes to Russian aggression.

Fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebels has killed more than 5,000 people since last April.

Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of arming rebels in eastern Ukraine and sending regular troops across the border.

Russia denies direct involvement but says some Russian volunteers are fighting alongside the rebels.

Speaking at a joint news conference with John Kerry, Ukrainian PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk said: “We need to get peace. But we will never consider anything that undermines territorial integrity… of Ukraine.”

John Kerry accused Russia of violating Ukraine’s sovereignty, saying that Russia had been acting with “impunity”, crossing the Ukrainian border “at will with weapons [and] personnel”.

“We are choosing a peaceful solution through diplomacy – but you cannot have a one-sided peace,” he said.

John Kerry added that President Barack Obama was still “reviewing all options”, including the possibility of providing “defensive weapons” to Ukraine, due to the dangerous escalation in violence.

Photo Reuters

Photo Reuters

The US is currently only providing “non-lethal” assistance.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said any decision by the US to supply weapons to Ukraine would “inflict colossal damage to Russian-American relations”.

Several senior Western officials have also expressed concern at the prospect of US arms being sent to Ukraine.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier likened the option to “throwing more weapons on the bonfire”, while NATO commander Philip Breedlove said governments must take into account that the move “could trigger a more strident reaction from Russia”.

Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel arrived in Kiev on February 5, in what appeared to be a speedily arranged visit.

They met Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who thanked them for their visit at “a very urgent time”.

Francois Hollande had said that he and Angela Merkel would present a new peace proposal based on the “territorial integrity” of Ukraine, which could be “acceptable to all”.

However, he warned that diplomacy “cannot go on indefinitely”.

Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on February 6.

A spokesman for the Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin would discuss “the fastest possible end to the civil war in south-eastern Ukraine”.

Correspondents say it is not clear how the latest attempt will differ from previous, aborted peace efforts – but there is speculation that Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel hope to discourage the US from supplying Ukraine with weapons.

The talks in Kiev come as NATO unveils details of a plan to bolster its military presence in Eastern Europe in response to the Ukraine crisis.

A new rapid reaction “spearhead” force of up to 5,000 troops is expected to be announced, with its lead units able to deploy at two days’ notice.

NATO is also establishing a network of small command centers in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria.

Meanwhile, officials said on February 5 that the European Union is adding 19 people, including five Russians, to its sanctions list over the Ukraine crisis.

Nine “entities” will also be targeted by the sanctions, which were reportedly agreed at an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers last week.

Fighting has intensified in eastern Ukraine in recent weeks amid a rebel offensive.

The fiercest fighting has been near the town of Debaltseve, where rebels are trying to surround Ukrainian troops. The town is a crucial rail hub linking the rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Some 1.2 million Ukrainians have fled their homes since last April, when the rebels seized a big swathe of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions following Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

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Former Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych has been placed on Interpol’s wanted list, almost one year after he fled to neighboring Russia.

Viktor Yanukovych is accused by Ukrainian officials of embezzling millions of dollars in public funds.

He was ousted after clashes between police and protesters in Kiev left dozens dead, mainly demonstrators.

Afterwards, Russia moved to annexe Crimea from Ukraine and conflict broke out in parts of eastern Ukraine.

Russia has denied fomenting the violence in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where a frequently violated ceasefire is in place. Ukrainian military officials said on January 12 that there had been an increase in rebel attacks on their positions.

Germany’s foreign minister is due to meet colleagues from Russia, Ukraine and France in an attempt to reach an agreement on a potential summit of leaders in Kazakhstan this week.Viktor Yanukovych Interpol list

Germany has stressed that a summit will only take place if it leads to “concrete progress”.

A red notice for Viktor Yanukovych appeared on Interpol’s website on January 12. Under a red notice, Interpol’s role is described as assisting a national police force in “identifying and locating these persons with a view to their arrest and extradition or similar lawful action”.

Viktor Yanukovych, 64, was last seen in a photograph with film director Oliver Stone, which was said to have been taken in Moscow in December.

An unconfirmed report by Interfax news agency said Russia was likely to decline a request for Viktor Yanukovych’s extradition.

The decision to issue the notice was taken by a special Interpol commission, according to Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, after months of reasoning from the authorities in Kiev.

Similar red notices were also issued for ex-PM Mykola Azarov and Iurii Kolobov, a former finance minister, as well as Georgii Dzekon, ex-chairman of Ukrtelecom.

Arsen Avakov said a warrant had been issued for Viktor Yanukovych’s son Olexander, although that could not be confirmed on the Interpol website.

Ukraine’s new government accuses Viktor Yanukovych of ordering snipers to fire on protesters, although he rejects the accusations against him.

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Ukraine reports claim that a radioactive leak has been detected at Zaporozhye Nuclear Power Plant, the largest in Europe.

Levels of radiation are 16.8 times the legally permitted norm media report says, citing the country’s emergency services.

Photo Reuters

Photo Reuters

LifeNews.ru published a leaked report by the State Emergency Service of Ukraine, which denies an earlier assessment by the plant’s authorities that the radiation at the facility is equal to the natural background following an incident on December 28.

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Ukraine will abandon its non-aligned status and work towards NATO membership after a vote in the country’s parliament.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the move “counterproductive” and said it would boost tensions.

It is not clear when Ukraine will apply for NATO membership and many officials see it as a distant prospect.

Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko pledged to seek NATO membership over Russian support for rebels in the east.

Russia, which annexed the Crimean peninsula in March, denies supplying the rebels with weapons. However, it is subject to EU and US sanctions over the crisis.

In a vote in Ukraine’s parliament on December 23, lawmakers overwhelmingly backed the move by 303 to eight.

Speaking before the vote, Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said Ukraine was determined to pivot towards Europe and the West.Ukraine parliament NATO

“This will lead to integration in the European and the Euro-Atlantic space,” he said.

The non-aligned status, which Ukraine adopted in 2010 under Russian pressure, prevents states from joining military alliances.

Addressing foreign ambassadors on Monday night, President Petro Poroshenko said Ukraine’s “fight for its independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty has turned into a decisive factor in our relations with the world”.

Russia has made clear that it opposes Ukraine’s move towards NATO.

Andrei Kelin, Russia’s envoy to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), said on Tuesday: “It’s an unfriendly step towards us. This political vector will only add to nuisances and acuteness in ties.”

In a Facebook post on Monday, Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev warned that Ukraine’s rejection of neutrality would have “negative consequences”.

“In essence, an application for NATO membership will turn Ukraine into a potential military opponent for Russia,” he wrote.

A NATO spokesman in Brussels said on December 23 that any accession to the alliance would probably take years, Reuters reported.

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The Moldovan pro-EU parties have a narrow lead over those backing closer ties with Russia, the latest results from the country’s parliamentary elections show.

With 89% of the votes counted, the three pro-Western parties have about 44%. The opposition has 39%.

No party appears to be able to form a government, and tough post-election bargaining is predicted.

The elections have taken on a wider significance in the shadow of the conflict in neighboring Ukraine.

Moldova and Ukraine have signed far-reaching partnership agreements with the EU, bitterly opposed by Russia.

On the eve of the vote, one pro-Russian party was banned from Sunday’s poll – a move criticized by Russia.

Residents of the Russian-backed breakaway region of Trans-Dniester did not take part in the election.

Photo Reuters

Photo Reuters

According to latest results, the three pro-European parties are set to have 57-58 seats in Moldova’s 101-seat parliament, while the two pro-Russian opposition parties are expected to hold 43-44 seats, reports say.

The pro-Russian Socialist Party led with more than 21% of the vote. The Communist Party was in third with almost 18%. The party is a Soviet-era survivor that still uses the hammer and sickle as its symbol, although it is not seen as fundamentally opposed to EU integration.

The pro-EU Liberal Democrats are in second place with 19%. The party wants Moldova to achieve EU candidate status by 2017 and full membership by 2020. Two other pro-Europe parties – the Democrats and the Liberals – are on just under 16% and 9% respectively.

There have been reports that the pro-EU parties may now try to form a “grand coalition” with the communists to keep the country on the European track.

Ahead of the Moldova vote, analysts said poll ratings of the Socialists, who want Moldova to turn its back on the EU and join a Russia-dominated economic bloc, had been boosted by their populist campaigning, including concerts by Russian pop stars.

Turnout was just under 56%, the central electoral commission said, out of a total of 2.7 million eligible voters.

Parties need to get at least 6% of the vote to gain seats in parliament.

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People in Moldova are heading to polls to vote in parliamentary elections which are widely seen as a contest between pro-EU parties and those backing closer ties with Russia.

Recent opinion polls gave a lead to the pro-Westerners, but tough post-election bargaining is predicted.

On the eve of the vote, one pro-Russian party was banned from the poll – a move criticized by Moscow.

The elections have taken on a wider significance in the shadow of the bloody crisis in neighboring Ukraine.

The crisis began last November after Ukraine’s former leadership made a last-minute U-turn, refusing to sign a landmark association and free trade deal with the EU – under huge pressure from Russia.

This triggered mass protests in Ukraine that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, and Kiev later signed the EU deal. But the protests, in turn, led to Russia annexing southern Crimea peninsula in March and throwing support behind separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Moldova – which also signed the EU agreement – has been under growing Russian pressure to change course.

About 2.7 million people are eligible to cast their ballots, electing a single-chamber 101-seat parliament by a system of proportional representation.

However, residents of the Russian-backed breakaway region of Trans-Dniester are not taking part in the election.

Moldovan PM Iurie Leanca’s Liberal Democratic Party wants the country to achieve EU candidate status by 2017 and full membership by 2020.

Its coalition partner, the Democratic Party, is more moderately pro-European.

The most strongly pro-EU and pro-NATO party, the Liberals, left the ruling coalition and went into opposition last year.

The opinion polls predict that the three pro-Western parties may get up to 43% of the vote.

The main opposition party is the Communist Party – a Soviet-era survivor that still uses the hammer and sickle as its symbol.

Poll ratings of another pro-Russian party – the Socialists – have been recently boosted by its populist campaigning, including concerts by Russian pop stars.

Pro-Moscow forces are also expected to pick additional votes after the ban of the Fatherland party. It was barred from the elections on the grounds that it illegally received foreign funding.

The party – whose leader has fled to Russia – denies the claim.

The opposition also hopes to capitalize on the growing economic problems under the pro-Western government in Moldova – one of Europe’s poorest countries.

The situation worsened after a Russian ban on Moldova’s import of agricultural products – including wine, meat, fruit and vegetables.

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