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June 27, 2017

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Ukraine & Russia leaders shake hands ahead of key peace talks

MINSK/NOVOAZOVSK--The presidents of Russia and Ukraine shook hands ahead of key talks on Tuesday, though with little hope for a breakthrough to end the raging conflict pitting Kiev against pro-Moscow separatist rebels.

Tensions have ramped up after Russia for the first time admitted that its troops had crossed onto Ukrainian soil after Kiev released footage purporting to show 10 Russian soldiers captured on its territory.

A Moscow military source claimed they had crossed into Ukraine "by accident."

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian leader Vladimir Putin were meeting in Minsk with top EU officials and the leaders of Kazakhstan and Belarus in a bid to defuse the conflict some fear could trigger all-out war between Kiev and its former Soviet master Moscow.

Poroshenko told Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko that "peace is the priority" ahead of the group meeting.

But, in a sign of how high tensions are, it remained unclear if he would meet one-on-one with Putin at the imposing Independence Palace in the Belarussian capital.

Pressure soared after Kiev's security service said on Sunday that paratroopers from Russia's 98th airborne division had been captured by Ukrainian forces about 50 kilometers (30 miles) southeast of the main rebel stronghold of Donetsk.

A seating chart released by Moscow indicates the talks will take place at a huge oval table, with Putin separated from Poroshenko by Kazakhstan's leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and his aides.

A Kremlin official in Minsk told AFP on condition of anonymity that a meeting involving EU officials will determine whether a sensitive one-on-one between Putin and Poroshenko would take place.

Soldiers Captured

Ukrainian media on Tuesday aired footage purporting to show captured Russian solders confessing to crossing into Ukraine in armored convoys.

"We traveled here in columns, not along the roads but across the fields," says one of the men, who identifies himself as corporal Ivan Milchakov from the 331st parachute regiment based in central Russia.

"I didn't even see when we crossed the border."

A Russian defense ministry source on Tuesday said the captured soldiers had crossed into Ukraine accidentally.

The soldiers had been "taking part in patrolling a section of the Russian-Ukrainian border. They crossed it most likely by accident, on an unequipped, unmarked section," Russian news agencies quoted the source as saying.

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