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EU working to defuse Ukraine crisis

The European Union will continue to work with Russia and Ukraine to reduce tensions between the two countries but will keep sanctions as an option, the EU's foreign policy chief said today.

Baroness Catherine Ashton said "work is ongoing" to ensure the 28-nation bloc is prepared to take measures against Russia if that becomes necessary, and stressed the "need to persuade Russia to de-escalate the situation".

Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula last month following a referendum called just two weeks after Russian forces had overtaken the Ukrainian region. Ukraine and the West have rejected the vote and the annexation.

The Ukraine crisis dominated the two-day informal meeting of EU foreign ministers in Athens, Greece.

Speaking just before the talks got under way yesterday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague urged EU partners to develop possible stricter sanctions against Russia should they become necessary. The EU has imposed sanctions against individuals.

Greek Foreign Minister Evangelos Venizelos, who was hosting the meeting, stressed that "sanctions are not an end in themselves... the issue is de-escalation that will lead to a definitive and working solution" of the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Greece holds the rotating six-month EU presidency and has been hosting a series of meetings in Athens.

The EU will continue to consult with Moscow and Washington on planned economic agreements with Ukraine and Moldova, Baroness Ashton added.

"The agreement with Ukraine would have a positive impact on the Russian economy. We will continue to engage Russia and the US," she said.

Besides Ukraine, the foreign ministers also discussed Syria's civil war, today's elections in Afghanistan and the situation in North Africa, including Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

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