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Scotland Campaigns Race For Votes On Referendum Eve

Edinburgh (AFP) — Campaigners for and against Scottish independence scrambled for votes on Wednesday on the eve of a knife-edge referendum that will either see Scotland break away from the United Kingdom or gain sweeping new powers with greater autonomy.

The “Yes” and “No” camps mobilized thousands of volunteers to hand out leaflets and hold rallies across Scotland in a final push to win over high numbers of undecided voters.

Three new opinion polls published in Wednesday’s papers all suggested a very narrow majority supporting staying in the UK but also showed that the undecideds could swing it either way.

“I’m really optimistic that if we do have independence, we can start building a society that works for all of us,” said 24-year-old Sam Hollick, a “Yes” activist from the Green Party who was campaigning at a stand on Edinburgh’s Leith Walk blaring the hit song “500 Miles” by Scottish band The Proclaimers.

Down the road at a bus stop, Steven Andrew said he had still not made up his mind.

“I’m going to be reading up on it tonight,” he said.

“I’m going to be looking at what side makes the better argument, whether I can believe one side.”

In a letter to the people of Scotland, pro-independence First Minister Alex Salmond urged the electorate to seize its historic chance to end the 307-year-old union with England.

“Wake up on Friday morning to the first day of a better country. Wake up knowing you did this — you made it happen,” Salmond wrote.

“It’s about taking your country’s future into your hands. Don’t let this opportunity slip through our fingers. Don’t let them tell us we can’t. Let’s do this.”

But Alistair Darling, the former British Chancellor of the Exchequer who heads up the “No” campaign, said there would be “faster, better change” for Scotland within the United Kingdom.

Britain’s three main political parties have promised increased though unspecified powers for the Scottish government in the event of a “No” vote, including on taxes and social welfare.

“We have all built the UK together and we have benefited from that strength… I think it would be a tragedy if that relationship were broken,” Darling told BBC radio.

– ‘Torpedo’ for Europe –

Heather Whiteside, a 21-year-old graduate from Glasgow University who came to see Darling at a campaign event in the city said the prospect of a “Yes” victory was “very scary”.

“Nationalism is a bad kind of politics, it tries to create artificial barriers between people,” she said.

A vote for independence would have far-reaching implications.

It could lead to Prime Minister David Cameron’s resignation and embolden other separatist movements.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy weighed in on the debate on Wednesday, branding moves for independence like Spain’s Catalonia region a “torpedo” to European integration.

“Everyone in Europe thinks that these processes are hugely negative,” financially and economically, Rajoy told the Spanish parliament.

All three polls published on Wednesday showed that support for independence had increased, but that when undecided voters were excluded, going it alone was set to be rejected by 52 percent to 48 percent.

The ICM poll for The Scotsman newspaper said “No” support was ahead on 45 percent to 41 percent, with 14 percent of voters still undecided.

The Opinium research agency said 49 percent of respondents to their survey of 1,156 backed staying in the union, with 45 percent set to vote for independence and six percent undecided.

Meanwhile, a Survation poll for the Scottish Daily Mail said 47.7 percent would vote “No” to independence, and 44.1 percent would vote “Yes”, with 8.3 percent choosing “don’t know”.

– ‘Down to the wire’ –

The debate has intensified in recent weeks as the polls have narrowed due to a surge in support for “Yes” and there have been fevered discussions in everyday life all over Scotland.

In Edinburgh, Fatima Somner, a 45-year-old cashier of Moroccan origin married to an Englishman, said she was hoping for a “No” victory.

“People who will vote ‘no’ are the ones who have money. Poorer people are going to vote ‘yes’. They hope that things will change for the better for them. But it will be the opposite, everything will become more expensive,” she said.

A client interjected: “I will vote ‘yes’ to be able to control our destiny. We are big enough and brave enough to do it.”

The “No” camp has warned that voting for independence would bring economic “uncertainty and risks”, while the separatists argue that it would ensure a healthy public sector and a fairer society shielded from London-imposed budget cuts.

Record numbers have registered for the referendum — 97 percent of eligible voters — and turnout is expected to be very high with officials saying it could be around 80 percent.

Pro-union Better Together campaign director Blair McDougall said it would be a close call.

“This vote will go right down to the wire,” McDougall said.

AFP Photo/Ben Stansall

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Ukraine Vows To Save Shaky Truce Despite Rebel Raids

SLAVYANSK (Ukraine) (AFP) – Ukraine’s new Western-backed leaders vowed on Wednesday to stick by their unilateral ceasefire and pursue peace talks despite the downing by pro-Russian militia of an army helicopter in the strife-torn separatist east.

The death of nine servicemen outside the rebel bastion of Slavyansk and loss of two troops in sporadic attacks prompted Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to threaten to unleash a powerful new military campaign in the Russified rustbelt.

An AFP team in Slavyansk heard a wave of shelling being launched by Ukrainian forces who have effectively surrounded the devastated city of nearly 120,000 on Wednesday morning.

Their assault was met with extended rounds of anti-aircraft and heavy machine gun fire that echoed through deserted city streets.

“This is the calm before the storm that begins once the ceasefire ends,” said a 42-year-old rebel who is simply known to his unit as “Oleksandr the Soldier.”

Poroshenko’s ominous warning dented hopes of the sides mediating an end to 11 weeks of guerrilla warfare that has killed more than 435 people and brought the ex-Soviet nation to the brink of collapse.

Kiev’s temporary ceasefire was picked up by rebel commanders on Monday but was due to expire on Friday morning after just two rounds of inconclusive talks.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said he told his counterparts in Brussels on Wednesday that Kiev had thus far kept to its pledge to hold fire despite dozens of rebel raids.

“We are committed to do our utmost to achieve the de-escalation of the situation,” Klimkin said during a meeting of top diplomats from the 28 NATO member states.

But a separatist leader in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic said after a second round of peace talks with Kiev that the truce was holding in name only.

“There is no ceasefire,” Oleksandr Borodai said after a second round-table meeting with Kiev representatives in the regional hub of Donetsk since Monday.

“We are seeking peace. But for now, all the consultations have been useless,” Borodai told reporters.

Putin has urged both sides to extend the truce and pushed senators to revoke his March 1 authorization to invade his western neighbor in a bid to “protect” ethnic Russians from the nationalists now in power in Kiev.

Russia’s rubber-stamp upper chamber approved Putin’s request on Wednesday in a 153-1 vote.

But Kiev and Washington still accuse Putin of covertly arming the rebels in retaliation for the February ouster of a pro-Russian administration that abruptly ditched an historic EU agreement and preferred closer ties with Moscow instead.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said in Brussels that Russia must still take “many concrete” steps to end the crisis.

Poroshenko will sign the final chapters of that pact in Brussels on Friday despite the strong likelihood that Russia will follow up a cut in gas deliveries it imposed on June 16 with punishing new trade barriers.

“The near-term economic impact of this agreement will depend very much on how Russia responds,” economists at London’s Capital Economic consultancy said in a research note.

“However, the agreement, coupled with Ukraine’s $17 billion IMF deal, should act as an anchor for much-needed economic and political reforms which would boost growth over a medium-term horizon,” it added in a report.

Poroshenko will also introduce to parliament on Thursday a draft of a new constitution that expands some regional powers but stops well short of creating a federation that Putin had hoped would give the east a chance to build much closer ties with Moscow.

The Ukrainian leader had German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande join him for a conference call with Putin that Paris said lasted more than an hour but whose details were not immediately released.

The French presidency said Hollande and Merkel “encouraged” Putin and Poroshenko to “work together, especially in order to put in place a mechanism to oversee the truce.”

NATO foreign ministers huddled in Brussels amid pleas from ex-Soviet satellite nations for the Alliance to beef up its military presence along Russia’s western frontier.

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen noted entering the meeting that the Alliance intended to “review our relations with Russia and decide what to do next.”

“I regret to say that we see no signs that Russia is respecting its international commitments,” NATO’s top civilian official said.

©afp.com / John MacDougall

 

Ukraine’s President Offers Unilateral Cease-Fire As Part Of Peace Plan

By Victoria Butenko and Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times

KIEV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s president said Wednesday that he has a peace plan that would provide for a unilateral cease-fire on the part of government forces, giving pro-Russia separatists a chance to lay down their arms and end a weeks-long confrontation that has left scores of people dead.

But his proposal was immediately rejected by one of the top leaders of the rebellion.

“The plan begins with my order for a unilateral cease-fire, after which we must immediately get support for the peace plan from all the participants” in the conflict in the country’s east and south, President Petro Poroshenko said during a visit to the Ivan Chernyakhovsky National Defense University in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.

“I can say that the cease-fire time will be pretty short,” he added. “We expect that disarmament of militant groups and restoration of order will take place right after it.”

Poroshenko said his plan consists of 14 key provisions but he didn’t elaborate on them.

“The main goal is peace, but not at any price,” he said. “The entire world is looking at us, and our task is to demonstrate that even in this war we can beat the enemy and we can bring peace to Ukrainian soil.”

Poroshenko gave no indication of when the proposed cease-fire would go into effect.

Pro-Russia rebels in the Donetsk region — who reportedly had recently received reinforcements from across the border with Russia, including tanks, armored personnel carriers, arms and ammunition — apparently were not impressed with the proposal. One of their leaders rejected the plan as “a meaningless PR stunt on the part of Poroshenko.”

“He offers to cease-fire so that we would lay down arms and his troops could get at us without a shot fired,” Denis Pushilin, leader of self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said in a phone interview. “We could talk peace with the Kiev junta only on conditions that their troops and hardware leave the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.”

That was the first step of his own peace plan, Pushilin said.

“Then we can exchange all POWs on both sides and start talks about the recognition of our republics in the presence of international mediators,” he said. “Our regions will never again be part of Ukraine.”

There were no reports of serious combat in the volatile Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine on Wednesday afternoon. However, Vladislav Seleznev, a spokesman for government operations against the separatists, said those forces so far had received no cease-fire order.

Separatists in the east and south, areas with large Russian-speaking populations, rebelled against the central government after protests drove pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovich from power in February and Moscow’s forces subsequently seized control of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea.

The proposal from Poroshenko, who is in his second week in office, sounds like a positive practical step aimed at ending the violence, said Oleziy Haran, a political expert and professor at Kiev Mohyla University.

“The plan will also provide an opportunity for Russian mercenaries to retreat to Russia through special controlled corridors earlier proposed by the president,” Haran said in a phone interview. “But all this is only possible if Russia really stops inciting and supplying the revolt with arms and mercenaries.”

Poroshenko discussed the details of his peace plan with Russian President Vladimir Putin by telephone, the UNIAN news agency reported. During the conversation, Poroshenko also expressed condolences over the deaths of two Russian TV journalists during a mortar attack near Luhansk on Tuesday and he promised an investigation into the incident, the news agency said.

Meanwhile, 16 Ukrainian security troops were wounded overnight in a rebel attack on a government checkpoint in the Luhansk region, UNIAN reported.

Also Wednesday, Poroshenko fired acting Foreign Minister Ondriy Deshchitsa and asked parliament to approve Pavel Klimkin, a career diplomat and Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany, as the new minister, the TSN television network reported.

The reason for Deshchitsa’s dismissal was not given, but he created a diplomatic scandal last week after he called Putin a profane name in public while trying to calm a protest in front of the Russian Embassy in Kiev.

©afp.com / Alexander Zemlianichenko

Ukraine President Pledges Ceasefire In Separatist East

Kiev (AFP) – Ukraine’s new President Petro Poroshenko announced on Wednesday that he would soon order a unilateral ceasefire in the separatist east to help end the 10-week pro-Russian insurgency.

He took a further step toward relieving tensions with Russia by deciding to replace acting Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsya — a hate figure in Moscow — with his current envoy to ongoing OSCE-mediate negotiations with the Kremlin.

But the Western-backed leader also appealed for U.S. and EU help to secure his crisis-torn country’s porous border with Russia and stem the influx of arms and militants into the conflict zone.

“The peace plan begins with my order for a unilateral ceasefire,” the Interfax-Ukraine news agency quoted Poroshenko as saying.

“Immediately after that, we must receive support for the presidential peace plan from all sides involved (in the conflict). This should happen very shortly.”

Ukraine’s acting Defense Minister Mykhailo Koval added that the ceasefire order would be issued “literally within days.”

Poroshenko’s comments followed a phone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday in which the two discussed a long-term solution to the pro-Kremlin uprising gripping Ukraine’s eastern rustbelt.

The Ukrainian leader’s office said the two presidents “discussed a series of priority measures that must be undertaken to implement a ceasefire, as well as the most efficient ways to monitor it.”

The Kremlin confirmed that “the issue of a possible ceasefire in the area of the military operation in Ukraine’s southeast had been touched upon.”

Poroshenko’s peace initiative calls for an end to hostilities and for Putin to formally recognize the new leadership in Ukraine that rose to power following the ouster of a pro-Russian administration in February after months of pro-EU protests.

The 48-year-old confectionery tycoon won Ukraine’s May 25 presidential election on a promise to quickly end the country’s worst crisis since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Interfax-Ukraine said Poroshenko told reporters in Kiev that the ceasefire was meant to be a temporary measure to give the pro-Russian militants a chance to disarm.

The rebels have previously rejected similar calls and vowed to continue a campaign to join Russia that has killed more than 325 civilians and fighters on both sides.

Poroshenko’s decision to tap 46-year-old Pavlo Klimkin to replace Deshchytsya as foreign minister will help address one of the biggest irritants in relations with Moscow.

Klimkin is a veteran diplomat who recently served as Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany and is now Poroshenko’s personal representative at talks with Moscow that were launched on June 8 by the Vienna-based Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Deshchytsya became embroiled in controversy at the weekend when he called Putin “a prick” while trying to restrain protesters who attacked Moscow’s embassy compound in Kiev.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded by saying that he had no intention of speaking to Deshchytsya again.

Ukraine’s parliament is largely expected to approve Klimkin’s candidacy in a vote later this week.

Poroshenko’s talks with Putin and nomination as foreign minister of a figure who has already won a degree of trust from Moscow come in sharp contrast to the freeze in the two sides’ relations that followed Russia’s annexation of Crimea in march.

But Poroshenko has stressed that he will be unable to put an end to the fighting until Ukraine regains complete control of its 1,230-mile land border with Russia.

The U.S. State Department on Tuesday once again expressed concern about “the movement of military tanks and other equipment across the border” into eastern Ukraine.

Poroshenko’s office said he told German Chancellor Angela Merkel by telephone on Tuesday that Ukraine needed Western help sealing the frontier.

“Petro Poroshenko noted that EU and U.S. assistance was essential for stepping up the state border’s control,” his office said in a statement.

The United States has pledged “non-lethal military aid” such as helmets and medical supplies for Ukraine’s underfunded armed forced.

But Washington has refused to provide any combat equipment and rejects the idea of deploying ground forces in Ukraine.

©afp.com / Alexander Zemlianichenko