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Ukraine parliament ratifies EU pact

Ukraine's parliament has ratified an agreement to deepen economic and political ties with the European Union, and passed legislation to grant autonomy to the rebellious east as part of a peace deal.

The ratification vote draws a line under the issue that last year sparked Ukraine's crisis, which resulted in the ousting of the president, the annexation of Crimea by Russia and a war with the Russia-backed separatists that has killed more than 2,600 people.

Earlier in the day, the parliament in closed session approved two bills on granting greater autonomy to the rebellious regions in the east as well as amnesty for many of those involved in the fighting. The bills are part of a tenuous peace process that saw a ceasefire called on September 5 but that has been repeatedly violated.

The city council in Donetsk said three people were killed in shelling overnight and Colonel Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine's national security council, said three Ukrainian servicemen were killed over the past day. Clashes continue in the area around the airport in Donetsk, the largest city under rebel control.

The legislation on autonomy falls short of the eastern rebels' aim for complete independence, but rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko told Russia's RIA Novosti news agency that the rebel leadership would study the measures.

The EU association agreement was long sought by Ukrainians who want their country to turn westwards and out of Russia's sphere of influence. After then-president Viktor Yanukovych shelved the deal last year, protests broke out that eventually spiralled into violence and led to Mr Yanukovych fleeing the country.

In the wake of that, Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea peninsula and a pro-Russia rebellion broke out in eastern Ukraine.

Ukrainian forces in April launched a military operation to put down the rebellion, which it claims gets substantial support including troops and equipment from Russia.

Just before the ratification vote, President Petro Poroshenko told the parliament that Ukrainians who died in the protests and in the eastern fighting "have died not only for their motherland. They gave up their lives for us to take a dignified place among the European family".

Russia opposed Ukraine's tilt towards the EU, hoping to bring the country into a Moscow-led trade bloc that would balance or compete with the EU. Ukrainians who sought closer ties with the Western bloc denounced the Russia-led trade bloc as an attempt to reconstitute the Soviet Union.

Moscow also feared that closer ties with the EU and the reduction of tariffs on Western goods would undermine Ukraine's demand for Russian goods and could allow the re-export to Russia of EU goods at lower prices.

In a significant concession to Russia, Ukraine and the EU agreed last week to delay the reduced-tariff regime that is part of the agreement until at least 2016.

The ratification vote in Kiev was met with a standing ovation, and members of parliament leapt to their feet to sing the Ukrainian national anthem.

In a speech to legislators, Mr Poroshenko called the vote a "first but very decisive step" towards bringing Ukraine fully into the European Union.

"Since the Second World War, not a single nation has paid such a high price for their right to be European," he said.

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