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Kiev - Ukraine's embattled acting president on Thursday promised not to prosecute pro-Russian militants occupying government buildings if they lay down their arms and end the four-day siege.
The olive branch offer came as the clock ticked down to a Friday morning deadline for the separatists to walk out of the state security building in the eastern city of Lugansk and the seat of government in nearby Donetsk or face the possible use of force.
The armed assailants want the heavily Russified east of the culturally splintered ex-Soviet nation to hold referendums on joining Russia, similar to the one that led to Moscow's annexation of Crimea last month.
Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov - in power since the February 22 ousting of a pro-Russian leader and still proclaimed illegitimate by the Kremlin - told lawmakers that Ukraine's latest secessionist crisis could be resolved peacefully.
Parliament's minority pro-Russian factions have been pushing a bill to amnesty the separatists that the Western-leaning majority has refused to support.
But Turchynov announced that he preferred a peaceful end to the standoff and was willing to guarantee the militants' safety if they walked out of the buildings quickly.
“If people lay down their arms and free the administration buildings, we do not need to adopt any amnesty laws,” said Turchynov.
“We guarantee that we will not launch any criminal proceedings against them. I am ready to formalise this in a presidential decree,” he promised.
“We can solve this problem today.”
The Donetsk separatists had earlier proclaimed the creation of their own “people's republic” and called on President Vladimir Putin to push the tens of thousands of troops now massed along Ukraine's border into its eastern industrial heartland.
Many in Ukraine's south-east - a region with a much longer history of Russian control that stretches back to tsarist times - are wary of the more nationalist leaders who rose to power in Kiev and have been looking to Putin for help.
But the two building occupations have drawn only small rallies of supporters and some polls show that the region's majority would actually prefer avoiding joining the Russian Federation.
The negotiations in Donetsk - a blue-collar coal mining region where ousted president Viktor Yanukovich made his political career - have involved some of Ukraine's most powerful security officials as well as its richest tycoon.
Officials said businessman Rinat Akhmetov and the region's governor have both joined Kiev's efforts to tone down the militants' demands.
“They are working on a peaceful solution, and this fills us with optimism,” said First Deputy Prime Minister Vitaliy Yarema.
Akhmetov - his wealth estimated by Forbes magazine at $11.4-billion - was a key financial backer of Yanukovich who is thought to wield tremendous influence throughout Donetsk.
But he is believed to be trying to establish closer relations with the new pro-Western leaders who are likely to prevail in snap May 25 presidential polls.
Both Washington and EU nations have accused the Kremlin of orchestrating the unrest in the east in order to have an excuse to invade the region - a charge stiffly denied by Moscow.
But a seeming breakthrough in the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War era emerged Tuesday when US and EU diplomats managed to convince both Moscow and Kiev to come together for four-way negotiations that one source in Brussels said should be held in Vienna on April 17.
At stake are not only the vast ex-Soviet state's territorial integrity and political future but also the fate of the West's relations with Moscow and all the repercussions this carries for global security in the coming years.
Putin signalled on Wednesday that he expected the talks to follow his idea of turning Ukraine into a loose federation whose eastern regions could establish their own diplomatic and trade relations with Russia - a proposal rejected by Kiev outright.
“I hope that the initiative of Russian foreign ministry on adjusting the situation and changing it for the better will have consequences, and that the outcome will be positive,” Putin told a televised government meeting.
“At the very least, I hope that the acting (leaders) will not do anything that cannot be fixed later,” Putin added without specifying what kind of mistakes he had in mind.
But a top US official said Washington was not setting the bar too high for the negotiations even if it did welcome the opportunity to have direct talks.
“I have to say that we don't have high expectations for these talks but we do believe it is very important to keep that diplomatic door open and will see what they bring,” US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said in Washington. - Sapa-AFP