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Pro-Russian rebels prepare arms for the the assault on the positions of Ukrainian army in Donetsk airport, eastern Ukraine, on Aug. 31. / AP

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday that his country's military would not interfere with the situation in Ukraine and that he stood ready to "converse" with the West to reach a peaceful settlement to the crisis there.

"There will be no military intervention," Lavrov said. "We call for an exclusively peaceful settlement of this severe crisis, this tragedy."

Lavrov's comments were carried by the Russian news agency Interfax and were made to students at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. They come as officials from both sides began cease-fire talks in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.

In Minsk, the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics urged Kiev to acknowledge their "special status," saying that in return the republics would not lay claim to other parts of Ukraine.

The initial statement said the republics want to "to preserve Ukraine's common economic, cultural and political space and the space of the entire Ukraine-Russian civilization."

The Moscow-based news agency RT said the statement was initially interpreted as the rebels seeking autonomy within Ukraine while wishing to remain part of it.

However, Donetsk Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Purgin told RT that the statement was about "the common security space of Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics, about post-war reconstruction of the economic, cultural, and social connections with Ukraine, and also about the fact that the (republics) wouldn't lay claim to other Ukrainian territories."

Lavrov said diplomats in Minsk must push for an immediate cease-fire. Kiev, the separatist regions, Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have sent representatives to the talks.

Purgin promised proposals aimed at curbing the military activity and reducing the number of the victims.

"I've come with the suggestions to find common ground to curb war and casualties," he told RT, adding that those are "the initial suggestions for negotiations' process."

Talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ended last week without any signs of progress.

In a separate development on Monday, Ukrainian National Security Council spokesman Col. Andriy Lysenko said Ukrainian forces had been ordered to retreat from the airport in Luhansk, the second-largest rebel-held city, in the face of an intensifying assault that he blamed on "professional artillery gunmen of the Russian armed forces."

Ukraine, NATO and the European Union all dispute Russia's claim that it is not active militarily in eastern Ukraine, even if indirectly. The EU has given Russia a one-week ultimatum to scale back its intervention in Ukraine or face additional economic sanctions.

Purgin told Interfax his group's priority was to win recognition of their independence in eastern Ukraine.

Fighting in eastern Ukraine between the separatists and the Ukrainian government in Kiev began in mid-April after Russian annexation of Crimea. The fighting has killed nearly 2,600 and forced more than 340,000 to flee their homes, according to the United Nations.

No negotiations have taken place that would return Crimea to Ukraine. The Black Sea region includes several major ports, a big part of Ukraine's coastline and, possibly, billions of dollars in Black Sea oil and mineral rights.

Contributing: Associated Press



Copyright 2014USA TODAY

Read the original story: Ukraine talks begin; Russia seeks 'peaceful settlement'

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