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Ukraine urges EU to keep sanction heat on Russia

Ukraine's prime minister has warned the EU that unified pressure on Russia is still needed. Several EU leaders have said sanctions will remain in place until Moscow has fully committed to the Minsk ceasefire deal.

The European Union must remain united against Russian President Vladimir Putin's designs on Ukraine or else risk allowing Moscow to exploit divisions within the 28-nation bloc, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told European leaders in Brussels.

"If Putin splits the unity among EU member states and among the leaders of the EU, this will be the biggest success story for Putin and a disaster for the free world," he said ahead of a two-day summit of EU leaders.

The meeting is expected to cover economic strife in Greece and the military crisis in eastern Ukraine that's already seen more than 6,000 killed in battles between pro-Russian separatists and Ukraine's military and allied militias.

The EU has instated visa bans on 150 Russian officials and frozen the assets of banks, companies and rebel groups believed to be tied to the conflict.

EU members such as Germany have argued for extending economic sanctions until the middle of the year that would link them to the outcome of a ceasefire negotiated last month in Minsk.

"We cannot lift sanctions if only the initial demands of the Minsk agreement are met. That would be wrong," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday in Berlin.

Others favor pushing that decision back till June or July in fear that broad sanctions could have a blowback on the European economy, which trades heavily with Russia and is a main customer for Russian natural gas and oil.

European Council President Donald Tusk, however, argued Thursday for the tougher approach.

"One of the best ways of supporting Ukraine will be through upholding the sanctions pressure on Russia until we witness a full implementation of the Minsk agreement," Tusk said ahead of the summit.

Washington has also backed a firmer line against the Kremlin.

"As long as Russia continues to fuel violence and instability in Ukraine, the international community must be prepared to increase the costs to Russia for pursuing such actions," the White House said in a statement following a conference call between Washington and Kyiv.

Meanwhile in Moscow, the Russian leader urged a group of billionaires to repatriate their wealth to Russia to avoid having assets frozen or seized in case the EU does extend sanctions.

Putin warned of a possible "limit on the use of these capital amounts which are located in foreign jurisdictions." He cited "disturbing information from a number of countries" that suggested efforts by foreign powers could try and obstruct returning their wealth to Russia.

"Just bear that in mind," Putin told a meeting of business leaders in Moscow.

Falling oil prices and sanctions have wreaked havoc on Russia's currency which has wiped about half its value since last year. Compounded with a record capital flight of $151.5 billion (141.6 billion euros) last year, the Kremlin has proposed an amnesty program in which funds brought back to Russia would not face any tax questions.

jar/sms (AFP, AP)