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Putin demands Ukraine pull troops from southeast region

MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin of Russia told Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany on Thursday that Ukraine must remove its military from the southeastern region of the country to resolve the showdown there with pro-Russian militants who have seized several official buildings, the Kremlin said.

“Putin emphasized that it was imperative today to withdraw all military units from the southeastern regions, stop the violence, and immediately launch a broad national dialogue as part of the constitutional reform process involving all regions and political forces,” the Russian government said in a statement.

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Russia has blamed Ukraine for escalating the situation and has accused the government in Kiev of deploying 11,000 soldiers in the region. The acting Ukrainian president, Oleksandr Turchinov, said Wednesday that the security services had lost control of the region to armed separatists, who have seized government buildings in about a dozen towns.

On Thursday, Turchinov issued a decree reinstating military conscription, saying men aged 18 to 24 will be drafted. The decree said the move was intended to halt the deterioration of public order, prevent the seizure of more state buildings, and maintain the armed forces in “the highest state of readiness for combat.”

Christiane Wirtz, a spokeswoman for the German chancellor, did not address Putin’s comments but said Merkel had urged him to intervene in the case of seven military monitors, including four German soldiers, affiliated with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who are being held hostage by a separatist mayor in the pro-Russian stronghold of Slovyansk.

In a report from the Russian news agency Interfax, the pro-Russian movement in Slovyansk said it had freed two of three captured members of the Ukrainian security services in exchange for the release of an unspecified number of its own activists. The report could not be confirmed by independent sources.

In a video posted online earlier this week, the three men were shown beaten and bloodied. They were filmed wearing nothing more than their shirts and underwear, with blood oozing from behind the duct tape covering their eyes.

In a sign of the continuing insecurity in the southeast, the Ukrainian National Information Agency said pro-Russian militants seized a police station and the state prosecutor’s office in Donetsk on Thursday. The Ukrainian flag on the prosecutor’s office was hauled down and burned as several hundred people waving Russian and even Soviet flags gathered nearby, the agency reported.

Russia and the separatists have denied that they are working together, and Putin has said there are no Russian troops in eastern Ukraine. He made similar claims during the annexation of Crimea, however, and then later acknowledged the existence of a Russian operation.

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs also sought to pressure Kiev, issuing not one but two statements on the same day. The first condemned Ukraine for scheduling a presidential vote and a referendum on decentralization for May 25 while military operations continue in the east. Some analysts believe that Russia is deliberately destabilizing the southeastern region to undermine the attempt to elect a legitimate government in Ukraine.

The second said Moscow was “extremely concerned” about media reports that the Ukrainian government intended to use its military in a special operation in the southeast. It said the government in Kiev should “soberly assess the gravity of the possible consequences of using force against the Ukrainian people.”

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