MOSCOW Russian President Vladimir Putin called on separatists in east Ukraine on Wednesday to postpone a referendum on independence for the mostly Russian-speaking region and said Moscow had withdrawn troops from the border with Ukraine.
Putin's comments appeared to open a way to resolving the East-West standoff over Ukraine.
The pro-Russian separatists behind the referendum said they had the utmost respect for Putin and that they would consider on Thursday whether to postpone Sunday's referendum.
"We call on the representatives of southeastern Ukraine, the supporters of the federalization of the country, to postpone the referendum planned for May 11," Putin said.
He said this would create conditions for dialogue between the Ukrainian authorities in Kiev and the separatists, some of whom want greater autonomy while others demand secession.
Putin added that Russians troops that had been placed near the border with Ukraine during the crisis, fuelling tension with the European Union, NATO and the United States, had been withdrawn.
"We're always being told that our forces on the Ukrainian border are a concern. We have withdrawn them. Today they are not on the Ukrainian border, they are in places where they conduct their regular tasks on training grounds," Putin said.
He made his comments after talks with the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who said the security and rights body would soon propose a "road map" to defuse the Ukraine crisis.
The Russian stock market surged 6 percent on the day after Putin's comments, but later fell back to a rise of 4 percent.
(Reporting by Darya Korsunskaya, Elizabeth Piper, Matt Robinson and Steve Gutterman; Writing by Timothy Heritage, editing by Nigel Stephenson)