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Ukraine vote offers separatists conditional autonomy

Ukraine's parliament has approved a draft bill providing special status for separatist territories if they hold regional elections. A month-old ceasefire between government forces and rebels sees frequent violations.

Ukraine's parliament approved a draft bill Tuesday to increase autonomy for separatist territories if they hold elections. Despite continued clashes, a truce agreed to on February 12 in Belarus has largely held.

"Ukraine's position is that we will deal with representatives of Donetsk and Luhansk who will be elected legitimately and in accordance with Ukrainian law ... in polls that will be recognized by the entire civilized world," President Petro Poroshenko said Tuesday. "There will not be any other elections in Ukraine."

The draft legislation allows for the regions to use Russian as their preferred language and for the territories to increase cross-border cooperation with Ukraine's massive well-armed neighbor - but only after the separatists hold local elections under national law and with international monitoring. Russian and separatist officials had slammed the legislation even before parliament voted, accusing Poroshenko of failing to consult with rebel representatives.

Fighting continues

Three government soldiers died on Tuesday, with five injured. Separatist fire caused some of the casualties and the others occurred when a military vehicle drove over a landmine, spokesman Andriy Lysenko told reporters, though he did not give precise tolls for the various incidents.

Ukrainian officials have complained daily that separatists continue to launch grenades, mortar and small arms fire from their positions. The opposition fighters - who seized control of some parts of eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions last year after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine - also accuse the government of violating the ceasefire.

Residents in the eastern Ukrainian town of Kostyantynivka, now under government control, have angrily confronted police after an armored military vehicle struck and killed an 8-year-old girl on Monday, showing the tensions still simmering in the war-torn region.

The violence that has killed more than 6,000 people since last April has subsided somewhat, however, and the focus has shifted to the political elements of the peace deal struck in February, which require Kyiv to surrender a degree of control over separatist-held areas. Ukraine's government and its allies in the United States and Europe have accused Russia of driving the insurgency and even alleged that the country has sent thousands of troops and weapons across the border, charges Kremlin officials deny.

On Monday, President Poroshenko held high-level talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the topic. Some Germans have fought alongside the separatists in Ukraine.

mkg/kms (Reuters, AFP, AP)

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