Ukraine prime minister endorses more local power

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DONETSK, Ukraine -- Making his first tour of the restive eastern regions of his country after coming to power seven weeks ago, Ukraine's prime minister promised Friday to push for more local autonomy and to listen to regional concerns.

Following last month's annexation of Crimea by Russia, pro-Moscow protests in Ukraine's eastern cities -- with thousands of Russian troops on alert just across the border -- have posed a critical and continuing threat to the integrity of the country.

NATO, meanwhile, rebutted Moscow's charges that the alliance was exaggerating the Russian military presence on the Ukrainian border. Rejecting Russian claims that satellite images previously released by NATO showed military exercises conducted in August 2013, the alliance published new photos Friday that it said prove that the Russian military buildup occurred early last month.

NATO "stands firm in its assessment that Russian forces in the vicinity of the border with Ukraine number in the range of 35,000 to 40,000 troops and are equipped with infantry fighting vehicles, tanks, combat aircraft, logistics and artillery," the allied command said on its website. "These forces are destabilizing to the region, which is why the North Atlantic Council has repeatedly called upon Russia to de-escalate the situation by withdrawing troops from the border with Ukraine."

The photos were taken by DigitalGlobe, a Colorado-based commercial vendor of satellite imagery, and were not altered or edited by NATO, the alliance said.

At the same time, NATO released a lengthy fact sheet that it said "set the record straight" on Russian attempts "to divert attention away from its aggression against Ukraine."

In eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian separatists have occupied key government buildings in Donetsk and Luhansk all week. The new government in Kiev is unpopular here, perceived as being dominated by Ukrainian nationalists.

In a reminder of the serious issues underlying the political crisis in Ukraine, seven people were killed Friday in Donetsk -- on the job, in an accident at a state-owned mine that has been the scene of other fatal incidents in recent years. Many coal mines of the Donbass region are poorly maintained, and bribery can induce safety inspectors to look the other way. Anger at corruption and the dismal state of Ukraine's economy is shared across the political spectrum.

Mr. Yatsenyuk began his meeting with a moment of silence for the dead miners. Later Friday, he visited another eastern city, Dnepropetrovsk, where he said Ukraine must have a new constitution in place before the May 25 presidential election.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his country has no intention of absorbing eastern Ukraine. He said it would not be in Russia's interest to do so.


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