KIEV (AFP) - Ukraine confirmed on Tuesday that Russia had pulled its troops back from the border for the first time in a move that could ease spiralling tensions five days ahead of a make-or-break presidential poll.
The state border service's surprise announcement that none of the estimated 40,000 soldiers were now stationed within 10 kilometres of Ukraine has the potential to deflate the bloody Kremlin-backed insurgency that threatens to tear the ex-Soviet nation apart.
The provisional Western-backed leaders in Kiev won another boost on Tuesday when Ukraine's richest tycoon Rinat Akhmetov denounced the armed rebels who have overrun a dozen cities in his eastern industrial power base as bandits who might create "genocide".
The turmoil that began with the popular overthrow in February of a pro-Russian leader and then saw Kremlin forces retaliate by annexing the Crimean peninsula has plunged East-West relations to post-Cold War lows and stoked fears of all-out civil conflict.
The United Nations estimates that around 130 people have died since violence in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions near the Russian border first broke out in early April.
The UN refugee agency also said that another 10,000 people - many of them ethnic Tatars in Crimea - have been internally displaced.
Ukraine's border guard said that Russian troops had been stationed within a few hundreds metres of the border until President Vladimir Putin on Monday ordered their withdrawal.
"As far as the presence of (Russian) forces within 10 kilometres of our border, they are not there anymore," Ukrainian news agencies quoted border guard official Sergiy Astakhov as saying. "What is happening further away from the border - that is not for us to say."
The United States and Nato have sent troops to Poland and the three tiny Baltic nations to calm jitters about Russian troops possibly not only overrunning Ukraine but also pushing further into Europe in a bid to reclaim ex-Soviet satellite states. Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen had said on Monday that a real Russian withdrawal - following several earlier promises by Mr Putin - would be an "important contribution to de-escalating the crisis".
But Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in an interview broadcast onTuesday that Moscow and the West were still "slowly but surely" approaching a second Cold War. Both Kiev and its Western allies see Sunday's presidential vote - backed only grudgingly by Moscow - as a chance to unite the culturally splintered nation and win more legitimacy in the Kremlin's eyes.
However, the Kiev authorities have admitted that they will have a hard time ensuring that polling proceeds smoothly in the two eastern districts where the rebels still control dozens of cities and towns.
But they received a long-sought boost on Tuesday when Mr Akhmetov - a Donetsk native who once funded the deposed pro-Kremlin regime but is now seeking to build closer relations with the new Kiev team - condemned the insurgency and called for a major march for peace. "People are tired of living in fear and terror," he said in his strongest statement yet against the pro-Kremlin separatist uprising.
The Ukrainian government hailed Mr Akhmetov's intervention as a potential turning point. "Finally - some energy from Rinat Akhmetov!" Interior Minister Avakov said on Facebook.
Mr Akhmetov's intervention "will help (Ukrainians) settle our differences and let our rifles gather dust," he said.
Mr Putin - currently on a visit to China - has denied any direct role in the eastern uprising and has so far refused to recognise the independence proclaimed by Donetsk and Lugansk in May 11 referendums that both the West and Kiev have denounced as a sham.
Russia has recently rolled back its vehement opposition to Sunday's election but also called on Kiev to immediately withdraw all its troops from the east. And UN assistant secretary-general for human rights Ivan Simonovic cautioned on Monday against expecting that the election would produce a "miracle" for Ukraine. He also warned in an interview with AFP in Kiev of a risk of a major exodus from rebel-held areas because of the near collapse of basic services there.
But it remains unclear how much credibility the poll will enjoy.
Ukraine's military has so far failed to dislodge the rebels from their strongholds and suffered a number of humiliating setbacks since it launched its "anti-terrorist" offensive in the east in mid-April.
The international community is pushing for a negotiated settlement under a peace roadmap sponsored by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Two rounds of so-called national unity dialogue have been held under OSCE auspices but Kiev's leaders have refused to invite the separatists, saying they will not negotiate with "terrorists" - to the deep annoyance of Moscow.