Anastasia Sirotkina / AP

New Ukraine president defiant toward Russia in inaugural speech

Poroshenko says Ukraine will never give up Crimea; calls for a unified, pro-European country and rejects separatists

Ukraine's new President Petro Poroshenko said his country would never give up Crimea and would not compromise on its course toward closer ties with Europe, spelling out a combative and defiant message to Russia in his inaugural speech on Saturday.

The 48-year-old billionaire took the oath of office before parliament, buoyed by Western support but facing an immediate crisis in relations with Moscow as a pro-Russian separatist uprising seethes in the east of his country. He called for dialogue with the east, but said he will not talk with rebels he called "gangsters and killers."

Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in March, weeks after street protests ousted Poroshenko's pro-Moscow predecessor, Viktor Yanukovich, in a move that has provoked the deepest crisis in Ukraine since the end of the Cold War.

"Citizens of Ukraine will never enjoy the beauty of peace unless we settle our relations with Russia. Russia occupied Crimea, which was, is, and will be Ukrainian soil," Poroshenko said in a speech that drew a standing ovation.

He told this to Russian President Vladimir Putin when the two met on Friday at a World War II D-Day anniversary ceremony in France, he said.

Poroshenko, who earned his fortune as a confectionery entrepreneur and is known locally as the "Chocolate King," said he intended very soon to sign the economic part of an association agreement with the European Union, as a first step toward full membership. This idea is anathema to Moscow, which wants to keep Ukraine in Russia’s sphere of influence.

Poroshenko stressed the need for a united Ukraine and the importance of ending the conflict that threatens to further split the country of 45 million people. He said it would not become a looser federalized state, as advocated by Russia, but he did call for early regional elections in the east and promised to push for new powers to be allotted to regional governments.

"There can be no trade-off about Crimea and about the European choice and about the governmental system. All other things can be negotiated and discussed at the negotiation table. Any attempts at internal or external enslavement of Ukraine will meet with resolute resistance," he said.

Hours after the speech, Putin ordered security tightened along Russia's border with Ukraine to prevent illegal crossings, Russian news agencies said. Ukraine claims that many of the insurgents in the east have come from Russia; Poroshenko on Saturday said he would offer a corridor for safe passage of "Russian militants" out of the country.

Pro-Russian rebel leaders in the east dismissed Poroshenko's speech.

"This statement doesn't concern us," said the self-declared prime minister of the Donetsk People's Republic, Alexander Borodai, according to the RIA Novosti news agency.

Poroshenko offered amnesty to rebels who "don't have blood on their hands." But this has been met with skepticism. "I don't believe it," said Valery Bolotov, the insurgent leader in the Luhansk region. Rebels in both Luhansk and Donetsk have declared their regions independent.

"I will bring you peace," the new president promised, but did not indicate whether Ukrainian forces would scale back their offensives against the insurgency.

Russia has insisted on Ukraine ending its military operation in the east. Ambassador Mikhail Zurabov, representing Moscow at the inauguration, said Poroshenko's statements "sound reassuring," but "for us the principal thing is to stop the military operation." He added that the insurgents should also stop fighting in order to bolster the delivery of humanitarian aid, RIA Novosti reported.

In his inaugural address, attended by U.S. politicians including Vice President Joseph Biden, Sen. John McCain and Democratic Rep. Marci Kaptur, Poroshenko called for dialogue with "peaceful citizens" in the east. "I am calling on everyone who has taken arms in their hands — please lay down your arms," he said.

He also said he would seek early parliamentary elections because "the current composition of the parliament is not consistent with the aspirations of the nation." The current parliament, elected in 2012 with a large contingent from Yanukovich's former party, is to stay in place until 2017.

Poroshenko insisted that Ukrainian would remain the sole state language of the country, but promised "new opportunities for the Russian language." He did not give specifics.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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