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Resolution on Ukraine force axed

The upper house of the Russian parliament has cancelled a resolution allowing the use of military force in Ukraine, a move intended to show Moscow's eagerness to de-escalate tensions and avoid a new round of Western sanctions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had requested the move, and said it was intended to help support the peace process in Ukraine, which began on Friday with a week-long ceasefire.

Mr Putin needs to show his support for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's peace plan ahead of this week's European Union summit to avoid further Western sanctions. The EU has warned it could introduce new sanctions that would target entire sectors of the Russian economy if Moscow fails to help de-escalate the crisis.

The vote came as Nato foreign ministers gathered in Brussels, warning that more sanctions are possible and considering ways to bolster Ukraine's military.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said today that Mr Putin's move to rescind permission for using military force in Ukraine was an "important psychological point", but that progress towards a solution remains slow and EU is still prepared to increase sanctions.

Ms Merkel, who was set to have a phone call with Mr Putin, French President Francois Hollande and Mr Poroshenko later in the day, said the EU will do everything possible to help find a diplomatic resolution, but added that "if nothing else helps, sanctions could return to the daily agenda, and this time at the third level".

Two previous rounds of US and EU sanctions imposed asset freezes and travel bans on members of Mr Putin's inner circle over Russia's annexation of Crimea. The next round, which would impose penalties for entire sectors of the Russian economy, could be far more crippling.

Maintaining pressure on the Kremlin, Nato's secretary general said today there are "no signs" Russia is respecting its commitments over Ukraine.

"So today we will review our relations with Russia and decide what to do next," Anders Fogh Rasmussen said as he arrived for the foreign ministers' meeting.

Mr Rasmussen said foreign ministers would also discuss how Nato can help build Ukraine's military capacities, including by creating trust funds.

As outlined by an alliance official, the trust funds for Ukraine would not bankroll the acquisition of lethal hardware, but would help pay for improving the former Soviet republic's capabilities in areas like logistics, cyber defence and command and control of military forces, as well as the resettling of soldiers whose barracks had been closed.

Mr Putin yesterday urged Ukraine to extend the truce and sit down for talks with the rebels. He argued the Ukrainian demand that the insurgents lay down their weapons within a week is unrealistic, explaining that they would be reluctant to disarm for fear of government reprisals.

The Russian leader also called on Ukraine to adopt constitutional amendments and other legal changes that would protect the rights of Russian-speakers in the east.

Mr Poroshenko said today that he would submit draft constitutional amendments offering broader powers to the regions and hopes for quick approval by parliament.

The ceasefire has been repeatedly broken by sporadic clashes, and it was violated again yesterday when rebels used a shoulder-fired missile to down a Ukrainian military helicopter, killing nine servicemen.

The attack, which came a day after the rebels pledged to respect the ceasefire, prompted Mr Poroshenko to warn that he may end the truce ahead of time.

Ms Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert later said the phone call among the four leaders had seen them agree that a mechanism needs to be set up to oversee the ceasefire and monitor the securing of Ukraine's border with Russia.

They also agreed that hostages held in eastern Ukraine should be freed without delay.

Observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) have been held in Ukraine for weeks.

Mr Seibert did not say how a ceasefire oversight mechanism might work but said talks between Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE should continue.

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