Russian President Vladimir Putin has asked pro-Kremlin separatists in southeastern Ukraine to postpone a series of disputed referendums planned for this weekend on declaring greater autonomy or outright independence from Kiev.
The move was announced after a Kremlin meeting with the current Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe chief, Didier Burkhalter, on Wednesday.
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"We ask the representatives of the southeast to postpone the referendums planned for May 11 in order to create the conditions necessary for dialogue," Putin said after the meeting.
Pro-Russian activists said they would discuss Putin's call for postponement at a meeting of their assembly on Thursday.
"Tomorrow we will discuss that at the people's assembly," Denis Pushilin, a leader of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, told Reuters.
"We have the utmost respect for President Putin. If he considers that necessary, we will of course discuss it."
Pro-Russian activists who have seized government buildings in eastern regions, such as Donetsk and Luhansk, had announced plans to stage polls on secession from Kiev following the protest-led ouster in February of a Kremlin-backed regime.
'Withdrawal' of troops
The votes have been denounced as illegal by both Kiev and its allies in Washington and the European Union.
Ethnic Russians who make up a large part of the population in the southeastern half of the ex-Soviet nation of 46 million had expressed fears about losing their language and other rights under a new pro-Western government.
Ukraine plans separately to stage snap presidential elections on May 25 that Russia had denounced as "absurd" because of the ongoing military standoff between separatists and Kiev forces.
But Putin appeared to soften his approach to the national election by calling it a tentative step in the right direction.
"I would like to stress that the presidential elections planned in Kiev, while they are a move in the right direction, will not decide anything if all the citizens of Ukraine fail to understand how their rights are protected after the elections are held," Putin said.
In a move that would go further to easing the tensions in Ukraine, the Russian president also was reported as saying the Kremlin had withdrawn its forces from its border with Ukraine, where NATO had said about 40,000 Russian troops had assembled in recent weeks.
"We're always being told that our forces on the Ukrainian border are a concern. We have withdrawn them. Today they are not on the Ukrainian border, they are in places where they conduct their regular tasks on training grounds," Putin was quoted as telling the Interfax news agency.
But a White House spokesman said later on Wednesday that US officials had seen "no evidence" that Russian troops had pulled back from the tense border.
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White House deputy spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Air Force One that "to date" there has been "no evidence that such a withdrawal has taken place".
His statements echoed those of NATO, which earlier Wednesday reported "no indication of a change in the position of military forces along the Ukraine border".
Earnest added that Washington would "certainly welcome a meaningful and transparent withdrawal."
"That's something that we have sought for quite some time," he said.