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Kazakhstan offers to host Russia-Ukraine meeting

MOSCOW (AP) — Kazakhstan's ex-president said Tuesday he offered to host the leaders of Russia and Ukraine for talks on settling the conflict in eastern Ukraine, but the Kremlin was noncommittal about such an encounter.

The fighting between Russia-backed separatist rebels and Ukrainian troops in Ukraine's industrial east has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014. A 2015 deal brokered by France and Germany has helped reduce the scale of hostilities, but political settlement has stalled.

Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stepped down as Kazakhstan's president earlier this year but continues to wield considerable influence, said that he suggested that the leaders of Russia and Ukraine meet in his country. He said he had spoken to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who reacted positively. Nazarbayev noted that he had told Russian President Vladimir Putin that Zelenskiy is ready for a meeting, but he didn't say how Putin reacted.

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that Russia is grateful to Nazarbayev for his mediation efforts but believes that such talks need to be thoroughly prepared and produce concrete results. "President Putin doesn't reject any meetings, but he believes that preparatory work needs to be completed," Peskov said in a conference call with reporters.

Zelenskiy, who was elected in a landslide in April on promises to end the fighting in the east, has pushed for talks about ending the conflict. Last month, Ukraine, Russia and the separatists signed a tentative agreement on guidelines for a local election in the east and a pullback of troops to pave the way for a much-anticipated four-way summit with Russia, Germany and France.

On Monday, Ukraine and the rebels said they have completed the planned disengagement of their forces in the east, a move seen as a key condition for holding the summit. Peskov hailed the pullback but noted that more work needs to be done before the leaders could meet. He said presidential aides from the four countries have been working on draft documents to be signed by the leaders.

The 2015 agreement sponsored by France and Germany that was signed in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, envisaged broad autonomy for the separatist regions in eastern Ukraine and an amnesty for the rebels — provisions that were never implemented because they were resented by many in Ukraine. Zelenskiy's latest push for the disengagement of forces in the east has angered Ukrainian far-right activists who denounced it as a capitulation to Moscow.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Tuesday that Zelenskiy's election helped revive peace efforts, voicing hope that the four-way summit in the so-called Normandy format could be held soon. "We are working hard to take advantage of the momentum we have gained through the election of President Zelenskiy," Maas said on the sidelines of a peace forum in Paris.

"I am confident that even in the not-too-distant future we will meet in the Normandy format, within the framework of a summit, to discuss further developments and, above all, to reach agreements with the aim of finally achieving peace in eastern Ukraine."

Daria Litvinova in Moscow and Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.

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