Insurgents killed in Ukraine attack
Up to 500 insurgents have attacked government troops in a clash in eastern Ukraine that left 20 rebels dead, the Ukrainian defence ministry says.
The ministry said in a statement that the clash took place yesterday as a convoy of Ukrainian troops was attacked outside the eastern village of Rubizhne.
The ministry said one soldier was killed early today in a separate clash near the same area.
It came as president Vladimir Putin promised Russia will recognise the outcome of Ukraine's presidential vote this weekend, but he also voiced hope that Ukraine's new leader would halt the military operation against separatists in the east.
In Kiev, Ukraine's caretaker president urged all voters to take part in Sunday's ballot to "cement the foundation of our nation".
Speaking at an investment forum in St Petersburg, Mr Putin said Russia will "respect the choice of the Ukrainian people" and will work with the new leadership. He said Moscow wants peace and order to be restored in its neighbour.
The Russian leader also voiced hopes of mending ties with the United States and the 28-nation European Union, which have slapped asset freezes and travel bans on members of his entourage and had threatened to introduce more crippling sanctions if Russia tried to derail Sunday's vote in Ukraine.
Twenty-one candidates are competing to become Ukraine's next leader. Polls show billionaire chocolate-maker Petro Poroshenko with a commanding lead but falling short of the absolute majority needed to win in the first round. His nearest challenger is Yulia Tymoshenko, the divisive former prime minister, who is trailing by a significant margin. If no one wins in the first round, a runoff will be held on June 15 - and most polls predict Mr Poroshenko's victory in that contest.
Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean peninsula in March, grabbing a large section of Ukraine's Black Sea coastline and triggering the worst crisis in relations with the West since the Cold War.
Mr Putin blamed the crisis on what he described as Western "snobbery" and a reluctance to listen to Russia's economic and security concerns. He said the sanctions on his inner circle were unfair.
He insisted Russia had nothing to do with what he described as the "chaos and a full-scale civil war" in Ukraine, saying that was triggered by the West's support of a "coup" which chased Ukraine's pro-Russian president from power in February.
"They supported the coup and plunged the country into chaos, and now they try to blame us for that and have us clean up their mess," he said.
Mr Putin also alleged that by pressing the EU to impose stronger sanctions against Russia, the US was trying to weaken a competitor.
"Maybe the Americans, who are quite shrewd, want to win a competitive edge over Europe by insisting on introducing sanctions against Russia?" he asked.
On a more positive note, he hoped that "common sense will push our partners in the United States and Europe toward continuing co-operation with Russia".
In a live televised address from Kiev, Ukraine's acting president Oleksandr Turchynov, who is not running in Sunday's election, emphasised the importance of the vote to choose a new leader.
"Today, we are building a new European country, the foundation of which was laid by millions of Ukrainians who proved that they are capable of defending their own choice and their country," he said. "We will never allow anyone to rob us of our freedom and independence, turn our Ukraine into a part of the post-Soviet empire."
Authorities in Kiev had hoped that a new president would unify the divided nation, where the west looks toward Europe and the east has strong traditional ties to Russia. But they have acknowledged it will be impossible to hold the vote in some areas in the east - especially in Donetsk and Luhansk, where insurgents have declared independence and pledged to derail the vote.
Election workers and activists say gunmen there have threatened them and seized their voting roles and stamps.
Joao Soares of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe said he expects problems with voting in "less than 20% of the polling stations".
Meanwhile, more fighting cast a shadow over the presidential vote.
AP journalists in the east saw three dead from Friday's fighting a day after insurgents killed 16 Ukrainian soldiers at a checkpoint. One rebel leader said 16 more people died in fighting Friday - 10 soldiers, four rebels and two civilians - but there was no immediate way to verify his statement.