BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday pro-Moscow rebels should allow Ukranian government forces safe passage out of the encircled eastern town of Debaltseve but Kiev should not prevent its troops from giving up their weapons.
Speaking at a joint news conference in Budapest with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Putin said the fighting around Debaltseve, a strategic rail hub, was to be expected but that overall there had been a significant reduction in fighting since a ceasefire was agreed.
The rebels and government forces were fighting in Debaltseve on Tuesday, dashing hopes that a European-brokered peace deal would end months of conflict.
Thousands of Ukrainian troops are surrounded there, their fate uncertain. The rebels said they had captured hundreds of them and would not let the rest escape unless they surrender.
On energy, Putin said that the South Stream gas pipeline, that was to have pumped Russian gas under the Black Sea and into southern Europe, was torpedoed by European objections.
He said it could not be resurrected in its original form. He said though that if Brussels backs the idea, a spur could be built to connect Bulgaria, intended landing point for the South Stream route, to another pipeline Russia is planning.
Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Angus MacSwan