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OUISTREHAM, France – A day before his inauguration, Ukraine's incoming president was attending the same D-Day commemorations as Russian President Vladimir Putin, with all eyes on the possibility that the two men might meet.
Deadly violence in eastern Ukraine was in many minds at the gathering in France to mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion that helped defeat Hitler. Ukrainian officials say more than 200 people have died — a figure which can't be independently confirmed — in fighting in recent weeks between Ukrainian government troops and pro-Russian rebels.
Putin and Ukrainian president-elect Petro Poroshenko were expected to have some sort of interaction although an official meeting was not planned.
Candy magnate Poroshenko, who is to be sworn in as Ukraine's next president on Saturday, has promised a comprehensive plan to put an end to the hostilities in the east as soon as he assumes office.
Putin held his first face-to-face meetings with Western leaders in France this week since pro-European protesters pushed out Ukraine's Russia-friendly president in February, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula, and the U.S. and EU imposed sanctions in response.
Some Western leaders appear ready to allow Putin back into the international fold after months of isolation. He met British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande on Thursday night, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday morning in the Normandy town of Deauville.
Russian officials did not elaborate on the outcome of the talks between Putin and Merkel but the Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov said "the conversation mostly focused on the search for solutions and compromises," rather than dwelling on the differences, according to the RIA Novosti news agency.
German government spokesman Christiane Wirtz said that the German chancellor "took the opportunity to remind Russia again of its great responsibility" and urged Moscow to work with Ukraine's new president.
President Barack Obama and Western allies opened a pathway for Russia to ease tensions in Ukraine on Thursday but pointedly warned Moscow it could face new sanctions within weeks if Putin fails to go along. The leaders said the Russian president could avoid tougher penalties in part by recognizing the legitimacy of the new Ukrainian government and ending support for an insurgency in eastern cities that is widely believed to be backed by the Kremlin.
There was no mention of rolling back Russia's annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea, which precipitated the European crisis.
In Ukraine, at least 15 pro-Russian rebels were killed Thursday in clashes with government troops at a border crossing with Russia, an aide to the Ukrainian interior minister said.
Speaking on a television show, Anton Herashchenko said armed men came from Russia in trucks and an infantry vehicle and tried to cross the border at the village of Marynivka in eastern Ukraine, and were supported by a hundred rebels from the Ukrainian side. His report of casualties could not be confirmed independently.
Following the clash, Ukraine's government ordered the closing of parts of the border with Russia, including the Marynivka crossing, in an attempt to prevent armed men from infiltrating into its territory. The Russian Foreign Ministry said it was "outraged" by this move.
Vasilyeva reported from Moscow. Angela Charlton in Paris and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.