DONETSK, Ukraine (AFP) - The embattled acting president of Ukraine promised on Thursday not to prosecute pro-Russian militants occupying government buildings in the east of the country if they laid down their arms and halted a four-day standoff.
The olive branch came as the clock ticked down to a Friday morning deadline for the separatists to walk out of the state security building in the eastern city of Lugansk and the seat of government in nearby Donetsk or face the possible use of force.
The armed assailants want the heavily Russified east of the culturally splintered ex-Soviet nation to hold independence referendums like the one that led to Moscow's annexation of Crimea last month.
Their demands have added extra urgency to the first round of direct talks that EU and US diplomats have managed to convince both Moscow and Kiev to join at the end of next week.
Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov, in power since the February 22 ouster of a pro-Russian leader but deemed illegitimate by the Kremlin, told lawmakers that Ukraine's latest secessionist crisis could be resolved peacefully.
"If people lay down their arms and free the administration buildings... we guarantee that we will not launch any criminal proceedings against them," he promised.
"I am ready to formalise this in a presidential decree," said Mr Turchynov.
"We can solve this problem today."
The Donetsk separatists had earlier proclaimed the creation of their own "people's republic" and called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to push the tens of thousands of troops now massed along the border into Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland.
Many in Ukraine's southeast - a region with a much longer history of Russian control that stretches back to tsarist times - are wary of the more nationalist leaders who rose to power in Kiev. They have been looking to Mr Putin for help.
But the two building occupations have drawn only small rallies of supporters. Some polls show that the region's majority would actually prefer avoiding joining the Russian Federation.
The militants holed up inside the Donetsk government seat were busy on Thursday fortifying their barricades with razor wire and old tyres that could be set on fire in case of a police assault.
Someone had painted a huge sign reading "Russia" on the side of the imposing building while a small group of elderly people handed out fliers under the drizzling rain claiming "Nazis are in power" in Kiev.
FOOTBALL BOSS JOINS TALKS
The negotiations in Donetsk - a blue-collar coal mining region where ousted president Viktor Yanukovych made his political career - have involved some of Ukraine's most powerful security officers as well as its richest tycoon.
Officials said businessman and Shakhtar football club owner Rinat Akhmetov and the region's governor have both joined Kiev's efforts to tone down the militants' demands.
"They are working on a peaceful solution, and this fills us with optimism," said First Deputy Prime Minister Vitaliy Yarema.
Mr Akhmetov - his wealth estimated by Forbes magazine at US$11.4 billion (S$14.2 billion) - was a key financial backer of Mr Yanukovych who is thought to wield tremendous influence throughout Donetsk.
But he is believed to be trying to establish closer relations with the new pro-Western leaders who are likely to prevail in snap May 25 presidential polls.
UKRAINE PEACE TALKS
Both Washington and EU nations have accused the Kremlin of orchestrating the unrest in the east in order to have an excuse to invade the region - a charge denied by Moscow.
But a seeming breakthrough in the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War era emerged on Tuesday when EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton confirmed that both Moscow and Kiev have agreed to join US officials for four-way talks.
They are expected to be held in either Vienna or Geneva on April 17.
At stake are not only Ukraine's territorial integrity and political future but also the fate of the West's relations with Moscow and all the repercussions this carries for global security in the coming years.
Mr Putin signalled on Wednesday that he expected the talks to follow his idea of turning Ukraine into a loose federation whose eastern regions could establish their own diplomatic and trade relations with Russia - a proposal rejected by Kiev outright.
A top US official said Washington was not setting the bar too high for the negotiations even if it did welcome the opportunity to have direct talks.
But some analysts in Moscow said Russia - its economy in danger of slipping into recession - may have realised that it had pushed relations with the West to the brink and was unwilling to escalate tensions much further.
"They now understand that they are facing serious economic sanctions," said Carnegie Moscow Centre analyst Alexei Malashenko.