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U.S. asks G7 ministers why it should care about Ukraine conflict

LUCCA, Italy (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asked his European counterparts on Tuesday why American voters should care about the conflict in Ukraine, France’s foreign minister said.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson talks with E.U. High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini as they arrive to pose for a family photo during a G7 for foreign ministers in Lucca, Italy April 11, 2017. REUTERS/Max Rossi

The new U.S. administration under President Donald Trump has indicated it might be less engaged on the international stage than some of its predecessors, telling its allies that it would put U.S. interests first.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said Tillerson had openly questioned why “American taxpayers” should be concerned about Ukraine, which has been racked by a separatist conflict for the last three years.

Ayrault told reporters he had replied: “It is in the interests of the U.S. taxpayers to have a Europe that is secure and is strong politically and economically ... You don’t want a weak Europe, broken into bits and feeble.

The West slapped sanctions on Russia in 2014 over its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and its support for the rebels in eastern Ukraine, in a conflict in which more than 10,000 people have been killed.

Kiev and NATO say Moscow has fueled the fighting by supporting the separatists with troops and weapons, a charge it denies.

Tillerson posed the question at a meeting of foreign ministers from the Group of Seven (G7) industrialised nations. The former oil executive flew to Russia immediately after the gathering and was not immediately available for comment.

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In its closing communique, the G7 said a Ukraine ceasefire agreement, struck in Minsk in 2015, had not been fully implemented, adding that Russia was not doing enough to help restore peace.

“Russia’s behaviour is not consistent with the rules-based international order,” the G7 statement said.

“We remain united in using a wide array of foreign policy tools, including restrictive measures and sanctions, with the goal of persuading Russia to return to a path of shared respect of those principles.”

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel told reporters a ceasefire was due to take effect over Easter.

“We must convince both sides ... that a ceasefire in Ukraine is the key precondition for getting back into a political process,” he said.

Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal in Berlin; editing by Andrew Roche