KIEV - Ukraine's embattled acting president promised Thursday not to prosecute pro-Russian militants occupying government buildings if they lay down their arms and end the four-day seige.
The olive branch offer came as the clock ticked down to a Friday morning deadline for the separatists to walk out of the state security building in the eastern city of Lugansk and the seat of government in nearby Donetsk or face the possible use of force.
The armed assailants want the heavily Russified east of the culturally splintered ex-Soviet nation to hold referendums on joining Russia, similar to the one that led to Moscow's annexation of Crimea last month.
Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov - in power since the February 22 ouster of a pro-Russian leader and still proclaimed illegitimate by the Kremlin - told lawmakers that Ukraine's latest secessionist crisis could be resolved peacefully.
Parliament's minority pro-Russian factions have been pushing a bill to amnesty the separatists that the Western-leaning majority has refused to support.
But Turchynov announced that he preferred a peaceful end to the standoff and was willing to guarantee the militants' safety if they walked out of the buildings quickly.
"If people lay down their arms and free the administration buildings, we do not need to adopt any amnesty laws," said Turchynov.
"We guarantee that we will not launch any criminal proceedings against them. I am ready to formalise this in a presidential decree," he promised.
"We can solve this problem today." The Donetsk separatists had earlier proclaimed the creation of their own "people's republic" and called on President Vladimir Putin to push the tens of thousands of troops now massed along Ukraine's border into its eastern industrial heartland.
Many in Ukraine's southeast - a region with a much longer history of Russian control that stretches back to tsarist times - are wary of the more nationalist leaders who rose to power in Kiev and have been looking to Putin for help.
But the two building occupations have drawn only small rallies of supporters and some polls show that the region's majority would actually prefer avoiding joining the Russian Federation.
The negotiations in Donetsk - a blue-collar coal mining region where ousted president Viktor Yanukovych made his political career - have involved some of Ukraine's most powerful security officials as well as its richest tycoon.
Officials said businessman Rinat Akhmetov and the region's governor have both joined Kiev's efforts to tone down the militants' demands.
"They are working on a peaceful solution, and this fills us with optimism," said First Deputy Prime Minister Vitaliy Yarema.