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Australia to tighten Russia sanctions: Abbott

SYDNEY -- Australia is preparing to tighten sanctions on Russia, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Friday as he warned President Vladimir Putin against sending his troops into Ukraine.

Fears are mounting that Moscow is preparing to deploy troops in conflict-torn east Ukraine, with NATO accusing Russia of massing some 20,000 troops on the border with its former Soviet neighbor.

“Let's be very clear about this — Russia has been a bully. Russia is a big country trying to bully a small country,” Abbott told reporters in Sydney.

NATO has warned that Russia could invade Ukraine under the pretext of a “humanitarian” mission, but Moscow has dismissed claims it has ratcheted up troop numbers.

“Right at this moment, Russian forces are massing on the border with Ukraine,” Abbott said.

“If there is any movement of Russian forces across the border it won't be a humanitarian mission, it will be an invasion.

“And I say to President Putin that if he wants to be regarded as a world leader, as opposed to becoming an international outcast, hold your forces back. Stay beyond the border. Let the business of Ukraine be sorted out by Ukrainians.”

Abbott's comments follow Moscow's decision to impose food import bans on the United States and European Union, as well as Australia, Canada and Norway after the U.S. and Europe introduced tough new sanctions against Russia last week.

Australia already had some sanctions on Russia, including travel bans and targeted financial sanctions, and did not immediately follow the U.S. and Europe in imposing tough new restrictions targeting Russia's key financial, arms and energy sectors.

But Abbott said Friday that as most Australian personnel involved in the recovery mission for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 had left Ukraine, he would now look at stronger sanctions.

“We are working towards stronger sanctions,” he said.

“The way to avoid increased sanctions is for Russia to call off what appears to be in preparation.”

Abbott said Russia needed to respect the independence of Ukraine, stop interfering in its neighbor's affairs and stop supporting and arming separatists there.

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