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Austria welcomes Putin but rebuffs his call for sanctions to be lifted

VIENNA (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Austria on Tuesday in his first trip to the West since being re-elected to the Kremlin and was rebuffed when he called for European Union sanctions to be lifted.

Austria, where a coalition of conservatives and the pro-Putin far right is in power, has a history of neutrality and relatively warm ties with Moscow.

It came in for criticism from its allies for being among the minority of EU member countries that did not expel any Russian diplomats over the poisoning of the former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal.

Putin, re-elected last March to a fourth overall term in office, used his visit to call for a lifting of EU sanctions, imposed as punishment for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

“These actions are harmful for everyone, both for those who initiate them and for those against whom they are directed,” Putin told a news conference.

“I therefore think everyone has an interest in cancelling them,” he added in the ornate former imperial palace in central Vienna where he met Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen.

But Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose conservatives control EU policy, repeated that Vienna would not break ranks with the rest of the bloc, which says the situation in eastern Ukraine must improve before sanctions can be lifted.

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“We hope that through more intensive dialogue there will be progress in the relations between the EU and Russia,” Kurz told reporters.

“In particular we hope that there is progress eastern Ukraine to ... lift the sanctions step by step.”

Putin’s visit is part of celebrations marking 50 years since energy firms OMV and Gazprom first signed a gas supply deal - they signed a fresh accord on Tuesday extending their agreement until 2040.

His Austrian trip is a rare and symbolic foray to the West for a man often at odds with Western governments over issues such as Syria and Ukraine. His last bilateral trip to Western Europe was to Finland last July.

Austria, which takes over the European Union’s rotating presidency in July, says it wants to act as a “bridge-builder” between east and west.

It has forged friendly ties with nationalist leaders like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Kurz’s coalition government includes the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), whose head called at the weekend for an end to EU sanctions on Russia.

Reporting by Francois Murphy and Darya Korsunskaya; Additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin and Tom Balmforth in Moscow and Alexandra Schwarz-Goerlich in Vienna; Editing by Richard Balmforth