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Ukraine billionaire leads the charge

As Kyiv lawmakers make new peace offer

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A Ukrainian coal miner smiles after finishing his shift at a coal mine outside Donetsk, Ukraine.A Ukrainian coal miner smiles, after finishing his shift at a coal mine outside Donetsk, Ukraine, Tuesday, May 20, 2014. While steel worker in Mariupol joined anti-separatist actions, miners refused to take part in a planned protest against the Donetsk People's Republic.

VADIM GHIRDA / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge Image

A Ukrainian coal miner smiles after finishing his shift at a coal mine outside Donetsk, Ukraine.A Ukrainian coal miner smiles, after finishing his shift at a coal mine outside Donetsk, Ukraine, Tuesday, May 20, 2014. While steel worker in Mariupol joined anti-separatist actions, miners refused to take part in a planned protest against the Donetsk People's Republic.

MARIUPOL, Ukraine -- A plea by Ukraine's richest man for demonstrations against Russian-backed separatists met with a mixed response Tuesday as many of his own workers stayed on their jobs.

Many Ukrainians still saw the gesture by billionaire Rinat Akhmetov as a welcome, if symbolic, attempt to end the country's fraternal strife while European leaders searched for diplomatic solutions to the crisis before Sunday's presidential election.

Akhmetov, whose coal, steel and other holdings are the industrial might of the Donets Basin in eastern Ukraine, asked his 300,000 employees to join a peace rally against the separatist movement, he said, could wreck the region's economy. The call followed Akhmetov's decision last week to form worker patrols to help police restore order on the streets of Mariupol, an industrial port city in southeastern Ukraine.

In Donetsk, several hundred pro-Ukrainian residents rallied just before noon at Donbas Arena. Organizers played the noise of a deafening factory whistle and urged the crowd to download a version of it they could sound at noon every day as a show of unity.

At the entrance to Akhmetov's Ilyich steel plant in this city on the Sea of Azov, nobody stepped outside the factory gate when the plant whistle sounded at noon.

"You see for yourself," said a bus driver in a red and grey uniform of Akhmetov's Metinvest company, pointing to routine traffic at the factory gate. "The main thing is nobody's shooting."

Minutes after the sirens sounded, Denis Pushilin, a leader of the separatists' self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, sent out a tweet saying rebels would begin nationalizing the properties of "regional oligarchs" for their refusal to pay taxes to the Donetsk People's Republic.

"Akhmetov made his choice," the rebel leader said. "Unfortunately, it is a choice against the people of Donbas."

Meanwhile, with the first round of the presidential election fast approaching, Ukraine's leaders arranged another session of round table talks, this time in the southern part of the country. The meeting, which would be the third in two weeks, will be held today in the city of Mykolaiv on the Black Sea.

Ukraine's acting foreign minister, Andrii Deshchytsia, said the locale outside Kyiv demonstrated the interim government's interest in building better relationships with regional representatives on their home turf.

Ukraine's parliament passed a "memorandum of mutual understanding and peace" that gave assurances about the status of the Russian language and lent support to a decentralization of power in the country, two key demands from eastern Ukrainians.

In Moscow, the Russian Defence Ministry said Tuesday its military forces near Ukraine's border were returning to their bases in line with Russian President Vladimir Putin's order Monday. But NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance has seen no signs of any withdrawal.

It was Akhmetov's decision to use his clout to intervene that attracted the most attention Tuesday, even if support for it seemed thin.

Alexei Primenko, 63, a locksmith in the steel plant's main office, was one of those who shrugged off the demonstration. He said workers pay lip service to Akhmetov's calls for pro-Ukrainian support because they owe their salaries to him. But Primenko said their hearts are not in it.

"What's the demonstration going to give me?" he said.

Some said they did not heed the steel magnate's call for a demonstration Tuesday because they blame him and other oligarchs as much as the separatists for dividing Ukraine.

At the burned-out city council building pro-Russian separatists had previously seized, a dozen supporters of the Donetsk People's Republic expressed contempt for Akhmetov's demonstrations. Milling in the square, they said Akhmetov's workforce was a captive audience that had no choice but to participate in the demonstrations.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 21, 2014 A7

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