Ex-Soviet officials call on Russia to withdraw troops from border areas near Ukraine

Officials from five ex-Soviet republics called on Russia to withdraw its troops from border areas near Ukraine, and they backed a free and fair Ukrainian presidential election on May 25.

The announcement came during a meeting in Prague of the European Union's Eastern Partnership, made up of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Belarus didn't attend the two-day meeting, which ended Friday.

Russia launched military exercises near its border with Ukraine in a response to a Ukrainian operation to force pro-Russia insurgents out of occupied buildings in eastern cities.

Czech President Milos Zeman, who hosted the meeting in Prague, said if Russia withdraws its troops from border areas, it would be a peaceful gesture that could help calm the crisis. Russia has already annexed the Crimean Peninsula.