Ukraine rebels mull Putin's referendum U-turn

Ukraine rebels mull Putin's referendum U-turn

DONETSK, Ukraine - Pro-Russian rebels fighting in eastern Ukraine were on Thursday weighing whether to postpone a vote on independence, as urged by President Vladimir Putin to dial down a crisis that threatened to plunge the country into civil war.

Self-proclaimed rebel leaders in the flashpoint towns of Slavyansk and Donetsk were poised to brief reporters after Putin said the referendums planned for Sunday should be put off to allow negotiations to take place.

In a stunning about-turn, Putin late on Wednesday also welcomed the holding of a presidential election in Ukraine on May 25 - something the Kremlin had dismissed as "absurd" only two days previously.

But he predicated that on reforms giving Russian speakers in Ukraine's east more autonomy under the ex-Soviet republic's constitution.

Putin also said his troops had withdrawn from the border with Ukraine, although NATO and the United States said they had seen no sign of that.

Putin's proposals offered the first glimmer of hope in weeks that the seemingly inexorable decline into war might be averted, but they sparked mixed reactions from a sceptical West.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier welcomed the "constructive tone" of Putin's comments, which came after the Kremlin strongman met with Swiss President and OSCE chief Didier Burkhalter. The Russian stockmarket and ruble soared after weeks of losses.

However, Kiev and Washington were much more downbeat about Putin's proposals. Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk accused Putin of "talking through his hat" about the independence referendums, which he said were invalid under the country's constitution to begin with.

'No sign of goodwill'

The Ukrainian foreign ministry issued a statement on Thursday saying any plebiscite in Ukraine without consultation with the Kiev authorities was "senseless and unacceptable".

"Any so-called 'terrorist referendums' in the east of our country are illegal by definition. Thus, an appeal to 'postpone' them is just a mockery and by no means a sign of goodwill," said Kiev.

While the government wants to have a "full-scale national dialogue... a dialogue with terrorists is impermissible and unconceivable," the ministry said.

The White House was also guarded in its response. Deputy spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Air Force One that there was "to date... no evidence that such a withdrawal (of troops) has taken place".

As a small crowd gathered outside Donetsk town hall, occupied by rebels for several weeks, pensioner Alla Nikolaeva admitted Putin's announcement had come as a "surprise" but aimed angry defiance at the government in Kiev.

"We can never be under the control of the Kiev junta - they've killed so many of our people that we can never forget that." Nearby, a woman handed out the first and only edition of the separatist Voice of the Republic newspaper (dated May 5).

Front page headline: "Why we need the May 11 referendum."

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