Mariupol: Russian President Vladimir Putin made a calculated retreat over Ukraine's crisis on Wednesday, urging the pro-Russian insurgents who control large areas of Donetsk to postpone a referendum on the status of the region.
The Russian leader also promised to "seek ways out of the crisis" and claimed that some of his country's troops had been withdrawn from Ukraine's eastern border.
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Russia wants Ukraine secession vote postponed
Just five days before it was to be held, Russian President Vladimir Putin calls on pro-Moscow separatists in Ukraine to postpone a vote on secession.
Mr Putin's newly conciliatory tone - the first time he has specifically called on the pro-Russians to take a step back from confrontation - came amid mounting evidence that the separatist leaders of the "Donetsk People's Republic" would have been incapable of holding a plausible referendum by the original deadline of Sunday.
His words coincided with another failed operation by Ukraine's security forces. At dawn, police and soldiers tried to clear pro-Russian protesters from city hall in Mariupol, the second biggest urban centre in Donetsk region with a population of 500,000.
Witnesses said the security forces drenched the four-storey building with gas, stormed inside, arrested 16 occupiers and then flew the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag from the roof. Having achieved this, they immediately left.
Why they did so is unclear, but their departure allowed the activists to re-occupy city hall. A crowd cheered as a man wearing a gas mask appeared on the roof and hoisted the red, blue and black flag of the "Donetsk People's Republic" once more.
"The Ukrainian military needed a picture for the Ukrainian mass media to show the building was taken back," said Eugene Stashko, 40, who came to city hall in support of the occupiers. "They took the pictures to show the Ukrainian flag. But now you see everything has changed again and the building is back in the hands of the People's Republic."
The use of gas infuriated the crowd. Hours after the assault, one man with red, tearful eyes was still squatting in agony outside the building. "We can't live in our country any more," said one woman, who declined to be named. "Those fascists in Kiev have come here and poisoned our people with gas."
The Mariupol operation was the latest in a series of failures by Ukraine's security forces as they try to restore control over Donetsk.
Mr Putin demanded an end to the Ukrainians' action, but also took a step back from confrontation, saying: "We ask the representatives of the south east to postpone the referendums planned for May 11 in order to create the conditions necessary for dialogue."
Donetsk is the most populous region of Ukraine, with 4.5 million people. Holding a referendum across the area of 10,000 square miles would have required scores - if not hundreds - of polling stations and the cooperation of thousands of officials. Organising it by Sunday was probably beyond the leaders of the "People's Republic".
Four days before the planned plebiscite, basic issues were still unresolved, including the location of polling stations.
By stepping in, Mr Putin might have saved his allies from a fiasco. Denis Pushilin, the self-styled "prime minister" of Donetsk, was quick to take the opportunity to effect a dignified retreat. Within an hour of the Russian leader's intervention, Mr Pushilin said: "We have the utmost respect for President Putin. If he considers that [a postponement] is necessary, we will of course discuss it."
Asked to clarify Mr Putin's position, his spokesman outlined two conditions for Russia to consider Ukraine-wide elections planned for May 25 as legitimate: a postponed referendum and an end to military action.
"If supporters of federalisation in east Ukraine listen to Mr Putin's call and postpone the date of the referendum, and Kiev, in turn, stops the military operation and begins steps to launch dialogue, it may allow Ukraine to escape a situation that is currently only deteriorating," Dmitry Peskov told Slon.ru, a Russian news website.
Mr Putin struck his conciliatory tone after a meeting in the Kremlin with Didier Burkhalter, the president of Switzerland, who also serves as chairman of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
"I know that you have your own proposals, your ideas of how to find a way out of the situation that has occurred [in Ukraine]," said Mr Putin. "Let's try to analyse the situation and seek ways out of this crisis."
The Telegraph, London