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Three die in Ukraine fight as Putin issues thinly veiled threat

GENEVA/MOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir Putin left the door open to intervening in Ukraine Thursday in a thinly veiled threat that coincided with the opening of crunch Geneva talks on the escalating crisis.

Warning that the former Soviet republic was plunging into the “abyss,” Putin said he hoped not to have to use his “right” to send Russian troops into Ukraine, just hours after three pro-Moscow separatists were killed in an overnight gun battle with Ukrainian troops.

The violence highlighted the urgency of talks in Geneva, which brought together the foreign ministers of Russia, the United States, the European Union and Ukraine.

The meeting comes after scores of pro-Kremlin separatists Kiev says are backed by Moscow took over parts of the restive southeast of the former Soviet republic.

“I very much hope that I am not obliged to use this right and that through political and diplomatic means we can solve all the acute problems in Ukraine,” Putin said in his annual televised phone-in with the nation, in a signal the option was on the table.

Putin Admits Troops in Crimea

Putin on Thursday rejected claims that Russian special forces are fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine, but recognized for the first time that the troops in unmarked uniforms who had overtaken Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula before its annexation by Moscow were Russian soldiers.

“It's all nonsense, there are no Russian units, special services or instructors in the east of Ukraine,” Putin said.

At the same time, he recognized for the first time that soldiers in unmarked uniforms — dubbed “little green men” — who swept Ukraine's Black Sea region of Crimea laying the ground for its annexation by Moscow last month were Russian troops.

Putin, who previously said the troops were part of local self-defense forces, said the Russian soldiers' presence was necessary to protect the local population from armed radicals and to ensure the holding of a referendum, in which an overwhelming majority of its residents voted for seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia.

But asked on Thursday who the men in unmarked uniforms were, Putin said they were Russian servicemen who “stood behind the back of Crimea's self-defense forces.”

“They acted politely, but resolutely and professionally,” he said. “There was no other way to hold the referendum in an open, honest and honorable way and allow the people to express their opinion.”

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