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May 30, 2017

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Security fears over Ukraine presidential vote

KIEV--Ukraine's election body issued a stark warning Saturday that it may be impossible to hold next week's crucial presidential election in the east, where a pro-Moscow insurgency is threatening to plunge the country into all-out civil war.

And Russia also questioned how an election taking place under the "thunder of guns" could possibly meet democratic norms.

The Central Election Commission called for the authorities in Kiev to take urgent action to ensure security in the east, saying almost two million people could be prevented from voting on May 25 because of the rebellion.

Its warning came as Ukraine's embattled Western-backed government was preparing to hold a second round of "national unity" dialogue called for under an OSCE-sponsored peace plan.

The commission said it could not prepare for the vote in the east because of threats and "illegal actions" by separatists who have overrun more than a dozen towns and cities since early April.

Although the talks are taking place later Saturday in the eastern city of Kharkiv — which has been rattled by violence since the rebellion erupted — no separatist leaders have been invited to the table to Russia's annoyance.

The West see the election as crucial to defusing the crisis on Europe's eastern flank and preventing the former Soviet republic from disintegrating further after Russia's annexation of Crimea.

'Halt punitive action'

But despite a month-long offensive, the Ukrainian military has failed to wrest back control of the main industrial regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, where rebels have now declared their own independent republics in defiance of Kiev and the West.

"Can elections held amid the thunder of guns really meet the democratic norms of the electoral process?" Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement, urging Kiev to immediately halt "punitive action against its own citizens."

It also said the government was using the unity talks "as a cover for aggressive action" and urged Western nations to tell Kiev to "launch real and not phony work toward national reconciliation."

But the United States and its allies piled further pressure on Moscow on Friday to allow the election to go ahead.

In a phone call, U.S. President Barack Obama and French counterpart Francois Hollande "underscored that Russia will face significant additional costs if it continues its provocative and destabilizing behavior," the White House said in a statement.

Obama has already drafted an executive order for sanctions across key sectors in Russia such as banking, energy, defense and mining, adding to punitive measures already imposed by Washington and Brussels.

In total, 36 million Ukrainians are eligible to vote on May 25 in an election expected to deliver victory to billionaire chocolate baron Petro Poroshenko.

The vote was called by the new leaders installed in Kiev after months of sometimes deadly pro-EU protests that led to the February ouster of Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych, viewed by many as corrupt and authoritarian.

Pro-Russians in the east took up arms in early April, refusing to recognize the legitimacy of a new national leadership they charge is made up of ultra-nationalists and neo-fascists.

Fighting rages almost every night, particularly around Slavyansk, the epicenter of the insurrection.

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