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Ukraine plans more troop withdrawals in east ahead of peace talks

KIEV (Reuters) - Ukraine plans more troop withdrawals in the eastern Donbass region as a confidence building measure to help pave the way for four-way peace talks with Russia, France and Germany, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Thursday.

Ukraine’s military and Russian-backed rebel forces began a phased troop withdrawal in the eastern town of Zolote this week, part of a series of measures to end a conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people in the last five years.

Ukraine plans to do the same in the town of Petrivske provided there are no ceasefire violations in the area, Zelenskiy said, speaking alongside NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at a press briefing.

That could help pave the way for talks between the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany in the so-called “Normandy Format”, he said.

“I see no doubt that we will have a meeting if all parties are committed to it and want to meet in the Normandy four format,” he said.

Relations between Ukraine and Russia collapsed following Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014 and its support for separatist fighters who control swathes of territory in eastern Ukraine.

A ceasefire signed in the Belarus capital of Minsk in 2015 halted the worst of the bloodshed but it is routinely flouted and both sides accuse the other of being an obstacle to peace.

Ukraine’s military said there were seven instances of shelling on Wednesday alone, using weapons that were banned under the ceasefire accord.

The Kremlin has previously blamed Ukraine for a lack of progress in organizing a four-way meeting.

Zelenskiy won a landslide election in April promising to end the war. He secured a landmark prisoner swap with Russian President Vladimir Putin in September but his peace moves have also sparked a domestic backlash, with protesters accusing him of ceding too much ground to Moscow.

Zelenskiy said Ukraine was ready to speed up preparations to become a NATO member.

Stoltenberg called on Russia to withdraw its forces from eastern Ukraine and return Ukrainian vessels captured in a naval skirmish last year.

“Allies are encouraged by the progress in Stanytsia Luhanska and other areas, where troops are pulling back,” Stoltenberg said. “But elsewhere, the conflict in Donbass continues to claim lives.”

Stoltenberg later addressed the Ukrainian parliament, saying the country’s path to NATO membership was contingent on Ukraine passing reforms and fighting corruption.

“This will support Ukraine’s aspiration to one day join NATO,” Stoltenberg told lawmakers. “As a sovereign nation, Ukraine has the right to choose its own security arrangements. NATO’s door remains open.”

Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Frances Kerry