Soccer diplomacy? Russian leader Putin, Ukraine's Poroshenko to be at World Cup final in Rio

It just might be a case of soccer diplomacy.

Brazilian officials have confirmed that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian leader Vladimir Putin will both attend Sunday's World Cup final match in Rio de Janeiro, a game pitting Argentina against Germany.

Both men will be inside Maracana stadium, circulating in a VIP area along with other heads of state. As yet, no formal meeting was set for Putin and Poroshenko, an encounter that perhaps could pave the way to renewed peace talks on ending the conflict between pro-Russian and pro-Western forces in Ukraine.

"But they'll be in the same area, on the same floor," said a Brazilian government official with direct knowledge of Poroshenko's last-minute trip to Rio. "Will they meet? Who knows?"

The official, who insisted on anonymity to discuss information about the visit that he wasn't authorized to reveal, said Poroshenko was persuaded by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to fly to Rio and watch the match with her. Merkel, along with French leader Francois Hollande, are the key European leaders trying to broker peace in Ukraine.

A press officer at Brazil's Foreign Ministry also confirmed that Poroshenko would be present at the match. Citing ministry rules, the press officer would not allow his name to be used.

Tensions between Russia and Ukraine escalated in February after protests by people who wanted closer ties with the European Union drove pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych from office. Russia called it an illegal coup and took control of Ukraine's Crimea region, saying it was protecting the rights of people there who speak Russian as their main language.

Since then, fighting between pro-Russia rebels and Ukrainian government troops has killed more than 400 people in eastern Ukraine, while tens of thousands have fled their homes, in many cases crossing the border into Russia.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, accompanying Putin on a trip to Argentina ahead of their visit to Brazil for a summit of the BRICS nations, told the Russian news agency ITAR-Tass that a meeting between Putin and Poroshenko was not scheduled. But he left open the possibility, saying Putin remained ready for comprehensive talks on Ukraine at anytime, anywhere.

The foreign ministers of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine earlier this month all called for the resumption of Ukraine peace talks. Two rounds of talks have failed.

Meanwhile, violence in Ukraine continues. On Saturday, at least four people were killed by artillery fire in an overnight attack in Maryinka, a suburb of Donetsk where pro-Russia insurgents are holed up. The attack happened hours after Poroshenko vowed vengeance for the deaths of 19 soldiers in an insurgent rocket attack near the Russian border.

Putin, whose nation will host the 2018 World Cup, is attending Sunday's final to take part in a handover ceremony with Rousseff and FIFA President Sepp Blatter.

Before the game, Rousseff will host a lunch for several leaders, including Putin and Merkel — and possibly Poroshenko if he arrives in Rio on time.

The Brazilian Foreign Ministry press officer said he did not have information on the seating arrangements at either the stadium or at the lunch.

"So I can't tell you where Putin, Poroshenko and Merkel will be sitting. It will be interesting to see," he said.


Associated Press writer Stan Lehman in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.


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