US denies rift with EU over Ukraine policy

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The United States (US) on Friday denied it was at odds with the European Union (EU) over how to end the crisis in Ukraine, despite a second leaked tape suggesting serious differences between the allies.

The EU has refused to be drawn over initial remarks by the top US envoy to Europe, Victoria Nuland, in which she apparently hurls an expletive at the European body during a private chat with the US ambassador to Kiev But the woes were compounded when a second tape emerged Friday, this time apparently of a conversation between two EU officials angered by earlier US comments over their moves to resolve Ukraine's political upheaval.

Asked if she believed whether the two incidents revealed a deep rift between the US and EU, State Department spokesman Jen Psaki said: "We do not."

"We are working closely with them. Do you agree on every component of every step at every moment? Of course not. It's too complex of an issue," she told reporters.

So far the European Union has sought to remain above the fray.

"We don't comment on leaked alleged telephone conversations," said a spokeswoman for EU foreign affairs head Catherine Ashton, adding the EU "is engaged in helping the people of Ukraine through the current political crisis".

In the first tape, Ms Nuland and US ambassador to Kiev, Geoff Pyatt, allegedly discuss which opposition figures should be in a new Ukrainian government and then reveal the UN is to name a new envoy to the country.

"That would be great I think to help glue this thing and have the UN glue it and you know, f*** the EU," Ms Nuland says in the recording posted on the Internet.

Ms Nuland in Kiev on Friday did not dispute the tape's authenticity but refused to comment "on a private diplomatic conversation".

The US State Department said Ms Nuland had apologised for her remarks and pointed the finger at Moscow as being responsible for the bugging.

But German Chancellor Angela Merkel reacted sharply.

"The chancellor considers this statement absolutely unacceptable ... and wants to emphasise again that Ashton is doing an outstanding job," her spokesman said.

The subject and the apparent eavesdropping touch a raw nerve in Germany after the US intelligence gathering scandal in which Ms Merkel's own mobile phone was reportedly tapped.

In the second tape, which was apparently uploaded earlier this week but surfaced on Friday, a senior EU official allegedly discusses differences with Washington, especially over sanctions on Kiev.

Ms Helga Schmid, a senior official on Ms Ashton's staff, says the "Americans are going around telling people we're too weak while they are tougher on sanctions". But Ms Ashton is actually "on the same page" and only wants to prepare the ground, the diplomat is heard telling the EU's ambassador to Ukraine, Jan Tombinski.

"What you should know is that it really bothers us that the Americans are going around naming and shaming us," Ms Schmid says in the tape.

Yanukovych sparked the Ukraine political crisis in November when he unexpectedly ditched an EU association accord five years in the making as Russia upped the pressure to bring its Soviet-era satellite back into the fold.

Sustained and often violent pro-EU protests since then have played out as a struggle for the country's future between the West and Russia.

Moscow has repeatedly charged the EU and United States with interference in Ukraine's internal affairs.

But Washington has hit back that Russia had a hand in leaking Ms Nuland's bugged phone call.

"The Russians were the first to tweet about this particular call. Only a few countries have the level of capabilities needed. I'll let you use your own judgment," Psaki told reporters.

"The question here is, what do the Russians want? Why this campaign of distraction?"