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EU urges Ukraine dialogue, reforms; sanctions "last resort"

Tue, 11th Feb 2014 06:33

Brussels (Alliance News) - EU foreign ministers insisted Monday on dialogue and political reforms to solve Ukraine's crisis, but left the prospect of sanctions on the table, at talks that also prepared for a troop deployment to Central African Republic.

The EU has increased its diplomatic activity with Kiev, as mass protests there have at times turned violent since Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych backed away from an association deal with the bloc last year, favouring closer ties to Russia.

"A new and inclusive government, constitutional reform bringing back more balance of powers, and preparations for free and fair presidential elections would contribute to bringing Ukraine back on a sustainable path of reforms," the ministers said Monday.

They expressed "deep concern" at Ukraine's ongoing crisis, and warned in a statement that the bloc "remains ready to respond quickly to any deterioration on the ground."

This refers to the "prospect of sanctions," said French minister for Europe Thierry Repentin, adding that the message was "addressed to those who would ultimately be touched by these sanctions."

But Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius stressed that such "tough measures" could only be a "last resort."

"As long as there are changes and improvements in the conversations between the opposition and the political leadership, (we) have no need yet to decide about sanctions," said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Washington raised the prospect last month of punitive measures, which could include travel bans or asset freezes, but the EU approach has focused on political dialogue, with foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton regularly holding talks with Yanukovych and the opposition.

A key concern is also Ukraine's economic woes, as the government faces bankruptcy without outside financial help. Russia has suspended a 15-billion-dollar credit line over the political uncertainty.

EU ministers insisted that any financial assistance would be tied to economic and political reforms.

They also stressed that it was still ready to sign the association deal with Kiev, under the right conditions, adding that this step would "not constitute the final goal in EU-Ukraine cooperation."

Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders denied that this was an offer of future EU membership for Ukraine, but his Lithuanian counterpart Linas Linkevicius said he thought it opened the door to a "European way."

The EU's commissioner for neighbourhood policy, Stefan Fule, has argued that offering Ukraine a membership perspective is the bloc's strongest tool to encourage reform.

The ministers also moved a step closer Monday to deploying EU troops to the Central African Republic, where a bloody conflict between Christians and Muslims has claimed thousands of lives and displaced 1 million people in the last 13 months.

French Major-General Philippe Ponties is to head the six-month mission, which will cost an estimated 25.9 million euros (35.3 million dollars). Around 500 European troops are expected to assist African Union peacekeepers.

"The absolute priority is to protect the civilian population from any further violence, to ensure that the people of the Central African Republic can live without fear and start rebuilding their country, and to make sure that humanitarian aid can be provided," Ashton said.

The launch of the mission requires separate approval. Troops should be deployed in March, Repentin said.

The ministers also gave the go-ahead for a diplomatic shift in relations with Cuba, a communist state which has embarked on gradual reforms since President Raul Castro took over from his brother Fidel in 2008.

The EU is now waiting for Cuba to agree to negotiations on a new agreement with the bloc. Ashton insisted that the EU's basic approach to the island wouldn't change, especially when it comes to human rights.

"The EU has expressed on different occasions deep concern over the practice of temporary arrests and the limitations imposed on freedom of expression and assembly," she said.

In a related development, the US protested the detention by Cuba last week of Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, a civil rights advocate, "and the reprehensible behaviour apparently meted out by state security to his wife."

"We condemn the Cuban government's continued harassment and repeated use of arbitrary detention, at times with violence, to silence critics, disrupt peaceful assembly and intimidate independent civil society," said State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf in Washington.

Copyright dpa

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