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NATO to Russia: Fulfill pledge this time, withdraw troops from Ukrainian border

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A handful of young men who say they support independence for this region of eastern Ukraine practice with riot shields on the steps of the ruined City Hall. (Credit: CNN)

KIEV, Ukraine — NATO is urging Russia to follow through on its many pledges to withdraw troops along Ukraine’s eastern border, saying it has seen no signs of soldiers returning to their bases.

There’s no evidence of troop reductions along the Ukrainian border, despite Moscow’s pledge to do so, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Monday.

Kiev said it’s monitoring the situation to ensure the troops are returning to their permanent bases.

NATO reiterated the need for the withdrawal, and Rasmussen said he’ll “be the first” to welcome it.

“I think it’s the third Putin statement on withdrawal of Russian troops … but so far we haven’t seen any withdrawal at all,” Rasmussen said.

“Withdrawal of Russian troops will be the first step to de-escalating the situation.”

Russia and Ukrainian separatists should practice restraint to allow Ukraine’s presidential election to go on as planned Sunday, Rasmussen said.

“We urge the armed pro-Russian separatist groups to stop their illegal activities. …Russia should stop their support for these armed groups,” he said.

“Russia should demonstrate a clear will to let the presidential election to go forward. The presidential election constitutes the best chance to find a sustainable solution to the crisis in Ukraine.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to amass 40,000 troops along Ukraine’s eastern border has raised fears of an invasion ahead of Ukraine’s presidential election Sunday.

Moscow defended the troop buildup, saying it was a routine exercise that has ended. The withdrawal has started but could take some time to finish, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Two weeks ago, Putin said Russian troops had pulled away from Ukraine’s border and were merely conducting “regular exercises at the test grounds.” At that time, NATO and Western officials said they saw no sign of widespread troop withdrawals.

The United States, which along with other Western countries has sanctioned Russia for its disputed takeover of Crimea, has threatened additional punishment for Russia if it fails to pull its troops back from the border.

Russian officials have said they reserve the right to protect the interests of Russian citizens and Russian-language speakers in Ukraine’s east, which traditionally leans toward Moscow.

And tensions in that region remain high, with ongoing reports of violence and growing human rights abuses.

In one of the latest incidents, Russian separatists clashed with Ukrainian border guards Saturday after a separatist leader was detained at a checkpoint.

Valeriy Bolotov, the self-declared governor of a “people’s republic” in Luhansk, was detained by security forces in Dovzhanskiy. Attackers freed him after a firefight, but he was wounded and went to Russia for medical treatment, separatist spokesman Vasiliy Nikitin said.

Over the weekend, the Russian Foreign Ministry accused Ukrainian troops of attacking Ukrainian citizens and questioned whether Sunday’s scheduled elections could be held amid the chaos.

“Such punitive action against its own citizens shows the hypocrisy of the Kiev authorities,” a ministry statement said, referring to an international pact agreed to last month that called for an end to violence.

On Friday, the United Nations released a report on abuses in eastern Ukraine, saying it had recorded cases of targeted killings, torture, beatings, abductions and sexual harassment, as well as intimidation of the media.