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Ukraine says rebel bases destroyed in east

Military action comes as Russian President Vladimir Putin says Moscow is ‘still open’ to talks on Ukraine’s gas debt

The Ukrainian army destroyed two pro-Russian bases in the East during overnight operations, the country's acting president said Thursday. It came just a day after the commencement of European-brokered talks that are aimed at forging dialogue between Kiev and breakaway regions.

Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov told lawmakers that government forces attacked an insurgent site in the city of Slovyansk and another one in nearby Kramatorsk, about 95 miles west of the Russian border.

Ukraine's defense ministry said there were no casualties while the army took three insurgents captive, including one who was armed with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

While bursts of automatic gunfire could be heard overnight in Slovyansk, the details of Turchynov's statement couldn't be independently confirmed. The situation was quiet during the day Thursday, and there has been no comment from the rebels to the claims made by Turchynov.

Turchynov didn't describe the rebel bases or give any further details. Both government troops and rebels have checkpoints around Slovyansk and Kramatorsk.

Some previous Ukrainian claims of successful operations have proved to be exaggerated.

Rebels, who have seized government buildings across eastern Ukraine and fought the Ukrainian military, declared two eastern regions independent following Sunday's referendum, which was dismissed as a sham by the Ukrainian government and the West.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a trans-Atlantic security group, put forward a "road map" calling for national dialogue as a first step toward resolving the escalating tensions. The first round of talks in Kiev produced no visible result as the government has confirmed its refusal to sit down with representatives of the rebels.

In the east of Ukraine, insurgents said they hadn't been invited to the Kiev round table and said that talks should be held in Donetsk. One of the leaders of the insurgency, Denis Pushilin, said it should focus on prisoners exchange and the pullout of the government forces, whom he called "occupation troops."

The next session of the talks is expected Saturday, but the government hasn't made any specific commitments.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich criticized what he called a "stubborn reluctance of the authorities in Kiev to launch a real process of national reconciliation."

Commenting on Moscow's attitude to the Donetsk rebels' appeal to join Russia following the referendum, Lukashevich made it clear that the Kremlin has no immediate intention to do so, saying that the priority is to encourage talks between the government and its foes.

"Russia has actively pushed for launching a broad national dialogue between Ukrainians about ways of forming the future of Ukrainian state," Lukashevich said. 

Russia open to gas talks

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Russia was "still open" to talks on Ukraine's gas debt, accusing the European Union of failing to make specific proposals to help prevent a cutoff of supplies from next month. 

In an open letter to European leaders, Putin also called on Brussels to "more actively engage" in finding ways to stabilize crisis-hit Ukraine's economy. 

Putin said Russia was "forced" to threaten to cut off gas supplies from June 3 after switching to up-front payments because Ukraine has amassed a gas debt of $3.5 billion. 

Nearly 15 percent of all gas consumed in Europe is delivered from Russia via Ukraine and Brussels fears that a cutoff could lead to disruptions in supplies to the EU. 

Ukraine has thus far refused to cover its obligations in protest over Moscow's decision to nearly double the price it charges Kiev for gas imports following the February overthrow of its Kremlin-backed regime. 

A possible halt in gas supplies could affect European customers as it did during previous pricing disputes, when Ukraine siphoned Russian gas intended for Europe. However, the threat of a halt in supplies comes in the summer, and the impact would likely be far less severe than a January 2009 shutdown that left European customers freezing amid a harsh winter. 

Wire services 

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