UPDATED: Putin orders troop pullback from Ukraine border: Kremlin

AFP and Reuters , Sunday 12 Oct 2014

Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered his defence minister to pull thousands of troops from the border with Ukraine, the Kremlin said ahead of key talks on a fragile truce in the ex-Soviet country.

"The head of state has tasked the defence minister with beginning to bring troops back to their permanent bases," the Kremlin said late Saturday evening.

The Kremlin said the order meant that 17,600 servicemen, who had in the summer participated in military drills in the southern Rostov region on the border with Ukraine, would be pulled back.

Defence minister Sergei Shoigu received the order after reporting that "summertime training on military ranges of the Southern military district is over," the Kremlin said.

The late Saturday meeting between Putin and his defence minister took place after the president chaired a meeting of his national security council, said the Kremlin, without providing further details.

Russian RIA Novosti news agency, citing the defence ministry, said that the troops have already started to pull out.

Relations between Moscow and the NATO alliance are at a post-Cold War low over Russia's actions in Ukraine, where it annexed the Crimean peninsula in March and has been supporting pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The West has introduced a wide range of sanctions against Russian banks, energy companies and individuals for Moscow's role in the Ukrainian conflict, which has claimed the lives of over 3,000 people.

A month ago, NATO said Russia had several thousand combat troops and hundreds of tanks and armoured vehicles in eastern Ukraine supporting pro-Russian separatists fighting the Ukrainian army.

Russia denies the charges but says it has a right to defend the interests of the region's Russian-speaking majority.

The alliance said at the end of last month it had observed a significant pullback of Russian conventional forces from inside Ukraine since an uneasy ceasefire began on Sept. 5.

The Kremlin has said Putin and Poroshenko may hold talks on the sidelines of a summit of Asian and European leaders in Milan on Oct. 16-17.

Kiev reported that pro-Moscow rebel attacks had subsided and Poroshenko said for his part the two would discuss the fragile truce agreed last month.

Alexei Makarkin from the Center for Political Technologies think-tank told Echo Moskvy radio that the troop pullout is probably one of the compromises between Russia and Ukraine.

"I think it could be about lifting part of the Western sanctions against Russia as a response to these decisions," he said.

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