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EU unveils 11-bil.-euro Ukraine aid package

KIEV -- U.S. and Russian top diplomats headed for crucial talks on Ukraine Wednesday as the EU unveiled an aid package worth at least 11 billion euros to support the country's new pro-Western leaders.

The talks in Paris to defuse the worst East-West stand-off since the Cold War came as pro-Moscow forces seized part of two missile bases in Ukraine's Crimea peninsula, although all missiles remained in Ukrainian hands.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia's Sergei Lavrov were meeting for the first time since Ukraine's Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovych was ousted late last month after three months of protests which left nearly 100 dead.

U.S. President Barack Obama said Tuesday Russia was “not fooling anyone” after it claimed it had no troops operating in Crimea, where pro-Russian forces have taken control.

Lavrov reiterated its claim on Wednesday, saying: “If they are the self-defense forces created by the inhabitants of Crimea, we have no authority over them. They do not receive our orders.”

But while stepping up diplomatic pressure Washington — with the support of European heavyweights France, Germany and Britain — is also seeking to offer President Vladimir Putin a way out of the crisis in the ex-Soviet state.

But Obama also spoke to German Chancellor Angela Merkel Tuesday and agreed on the importance of a “de-escalation” with the deployment of international observers and the start of talks between Moscow and Kiev, a U.S. official said.

'De-escalation'

“De-escalation” on the Russian side would include its troops going back inside their bases in Crimea, home to Russia's Black Sea naval fleet since the 18th century, the official added.

Russian doubts on the legitimacy of Kiev's interim government would be resolved by elections planned for May.

A diplomatic source told AFP Wednesday that 15 member states of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), including the United States, have agreed to send military observers to Ukraine.

The EU's biggest powers, France and Germany, want “very firm” steps against Putin while moving towards talks, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.

Merkel called on Russia not to do anything to destabilize the situation, after Putin insisted on Russia's right to use “all available means” there.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton indefinitely postponed a Kiev trip but was to meet Western and Ukrainian leaders in Brussels and Paris ahead of an emergency Brussels summit.

Announcing the crucial aid package for Ukraine, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said it was “designed to assist a committed, inclusive and reforms-oriented Ukrainian government.”

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Soldiers, purportedly from Russia, patrol near the Ukrainian navy ship Slavutich in the harbor of the Ukrainian city of Sevastopol on Wednesday, March 5. (AFP)

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