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NATO: Russian troops never left Ukraine border

Apr. 1, 2014 - 12:51PM   |  
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KIEV, UKRAINE — NATO said Tuesday that Russia has not withdrawn any of the tens of thousands of troops it has lined on the Ukraine border. Moscow, meanwhile, hiked gas prices to Ukrainians and demanded reimbursement for past discounts.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the European-U.S. defense alliance saw no evidence of Russian President Vladimir Putin's claim to German Chancellor Angela Merkel that he withdrew a battalion to calm tensions.

"This is not what we are seeing," Rasmussen told journalists at the meeting of foreign ministers of NATO countries. "I continue to urge Russia to pull back its troops, live up to its international obligations and engage in a constructive dialogue with Ukraine."

Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said there may have been "small signals of de-escalation" but Poland's Radek Sikorski reinforced Western suspicions when he said he hoped the withdrawal announcement wasn't an April Fools' joke.

Foreign ministers from the 28 members of NATO met in Brussels on Tuesday for the first time since Russia took over the Ukraine province of Crimea. Many European leaders have described the standoff as the worst Russian crisis since its predecessor, the communist Soviet Union, dissolved nearly a quarter century ago.

NATO said its members talked over whether to boost the military presence in former communist central and eastern Europe in light of Russia's aggression. Romanian President Traian Basescu, whose country was once under Soviet domination, said the Pentagon has asked to boost the number of troops and aircraft at a base in his country.

Poland's Sikorski said his country, also once under Soviet rule for decades, welcomed any forces NATO wanted to station there.

Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert said that Putin told Merkel in a phone call that he was removing a battalion of troops from the border with east Ukraine, where Ukrainian cities are nervous that what happened to Crimea may happen to them. Ukrainians here say Russia looks like it is preparing for an invasion.

Ukraine's Defense Ministry has estimated that Putin has moved as many as 100,000 Russian troops to the border. On Tuesday, the ministry could not verify that any troops had departed and said it is "constantly watching the situation."

"My mother is greatly disturbed," said Iryna Aleshchenko, 24. "She goes 'What's going to happen?' all the time, hysterically."

The Kiev student said she was worried about family members, who live in her home town of Sumy, close to the border.

"It's a lot of tension for people to know that there are military vehicles so close to their homes," Aleshchenko said.

"As the last few months showed us, words and statements can't be trusted at all. I will believe the troops were withdrawn when I see them leaving with my own eyes," she added.

Alexei Miller, the head of Russia's state-controlled natural gas giant Gazprom, said Tuesday that the company has withdrawn December's discount that put the price of gas at $268.50 per 1,000 cubic meters and set the price at $385.50 per 1,000 cubic meters for the second quarter.

The discount was part of deal offered by Putin to Ukraine's former president, Viktor Yanukovych, in return for his having spurned an economic pact with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Moscow.

The deal sparked months of protests in which more than 80 people were shot dead in February. Yanukovych fled to Russia as the Ukraine parliament ousted him and an arrest warrant was issued for him.

Russia has used such financial pressure in the past to get Ukraine to bend to its will. But Gazprom said that the decision to charge a higher price in the second quarter was made because Ukraine has failed to pay off its debt for past supplies, which now stands at $1.7 billion.

______

AP Reporter Jennifer Collins in Berlin.

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