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Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters

Putin says troops pulled back from Ukraine border, urges referendum delay

Russian leader calls on Kyiv to talk with pro-Moscow rebels, demands constitutional reform before presidential vote

Russian President Vladimir Putin called on rebels in eastern Ukraine to postpone a referendum on secession planned for Sunday, adding that Moscow had also withdrawn troops from the border. But Putin also made clear that he would continue to oppose Ukraine's May 25 presidential election unless constitutional changes are implemented first — and insisted that Kyiv begin negotiations with pro-Russian rebels. 

"We call on the representatives of southeastern Ukraine, the supporters of the federalization of the country, to postpone the referendum planned for May 11," Putin said, adding that the move would help create conditions for dialogue between Kyiv and rebels, some of whom want greater autonomy while others demand secession.

The order to pull back Russian troops from the Ukrainian border could ease tensions between the former Soviet allies. However, both NATO and Washington said they had seen no evidence of the retreat. The White House asserted its belief that the planned referendum should be canceled, not merely postponed.

Nonetheless, Putin's comments appeared to open a way to resolving the standoff over Ukraine. The pro-Russian groups behind the referendum said they had the utmost respect for Putin and that they would consider on Thursday whether to postpone Sunday's referendum, according to a report by Reuters. However, The Associated Press said pro-Russian activists calling themselves the Donetsk People's Republic told the news agency they would still hold the referendum on Sunday.

Alongside the calls for a delay in Sunday’s referendum, Putin described the May 25 presidential election as a step “in the right direction.” But he reiterated Russia’s long-held stance that constitutional reforms must precede any nationwide vote in Ukraine.

In regard to Moscow’s troop positions, Putin said forces had been pulled back to training grounds and locations for "regular exercises," but didn't specify whether those locations were in areas near Ukraine. 

"We're always being told that our forces on the Ukrainian border are a concern. We have withdrawn them. Today they are not on the Ukrainian border, they are in places where they conduct their regular tasks on training grounds," Putin said. He made his comments after talks with the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who said the security and rights body would soon propose a "road map" to defuse the Ukraine crisis.

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The move comes after days of fighting that has seen dozens killed in eastern regions of Ukraine. Putin called on Kyiv's military to halt all operations against pro-Russian activists who have seized government buildings and police stations in at least a dozen towns in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine launched a government offensive late last week to take back buildings and towns under control of the insurgents. At least 35 people, including many rebels, have died in that offensive, the government said.

Many had feared that Sunday's vote on more autonomy would be a flashpoint for further violence between the rebels and Ukrainian troops in the east. Russia annexed the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in March after residents held a vote and overwhelmingly backed secession.

Alongside the current unrest, Ukraine is facing protracted economic hardship that could lead to further uncertainty.

On Wednesday, the country’s central bank said it had received an initial slice of aid worth $3.19 billion from the International Monetary Fund, as the West seeks to shore up the crisis-hit country.

The cash is part of an overall IMF package of $17 billion, and Kyiv is expected to use the first tranche to pay an outstanding debt to Russia's state-owned gas firm Gazprom.

Al Jazeera and wire services 

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