Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday called for a delay in Sunday's referendum on autonomy in southeastern Ukraine and said Russia has withdrawn troops from the Ukraine border.

"We have been told that our troops on the Ukrainian border are a concern — we have withdrawn them," Putin said after meeting in Moscow with Swiss President Didier Burkhalter. "They are not now on Ukrainian territory, but at locations where they conduct regular drills at ranges."

TV Rain, an independent Russian TV channel, tweeted photographs of Russian troops pulling back from the border.

At the same time, he called on Ukraine's military to halt operations against pro-Russia activists who have seized government buildings and police stations in eastern Ukraine.

"This method of settling the internal political conflict is not a reliable way of resolving all political disputes," he said. "On the contrary, they deepen the divisions."

Putin said a delay in the May 11 referendum was needed "to create proper conditions for this dialogue," the Russian ITAR-Tass news agency reports.

A similar referendum in March over the disputed Ukrainian region of Crimea led to the annexation of the area by Russia.

In response to Putin's remarks, pro-Russian activist Denis Pushilin, one of the leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, said the "people's council" would discuss the possibility of a postponement on Thursday, reports.

"We respect Putin's position," Pushilin said. "He is a balanced politician. So we will submit this proposal tomorrow to the people's council. "

The United States and the European Union have charged that the armed pro-Russian activists are being directed by Russian troops.

Putin said that Russia is interested in a speedy settlement of the crisis by taking into account the interests of all citizens no matter where they live.

"Russia believes that the crisis that has broken out in Ukraine and is actively evolving by the worst possible scenario is to be blamed on those who organized the state coup in Kiev," the president noted.

Moscow has blamed this year's political tumult on pro-Western demonstrations in Kiev that eventually drove the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, from office in February.

The Russian leader called Ukraine's presidential election — scheduled for May 25 — as a move "in the right direction," but emphasized that constitutional reforms must precede any nationwide vote in Ukraine.

Roman Lyagin, chairman of the Donetsk People's Republic election commission, told the Associated Press that Putin's remarks notwithstanding, plans for holding an autonomy referendum on Sunday remained unchanged.

In Berlin, a leading Ukrainian presidential candidate said he was prepared to negotiate a decentralization of power as pro-Russia insurgents in the east have demanded.

But Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire chocolate magnate, added that some insurgents in the eastern region understand only "the language of force."

In Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, Jeffrey Feltman, the United Nations undersecretary-general for political affairs, met with Ukraine's acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, on Wednesday after visiting Moscow a day earlier. British Foreign Secretary William Hague also arrived to speak with the nation's leaders.

Speaking in a BBC interview, Hague lent his support to Ukraine's May 25 election.

Ukrainians "cannot be bullied out of having their elections by disorder that is deliberately fomented and coordinated from another country, in this instance Russia," he said.

The U.S. and European nations have increased diplomatic efforts ahead of Ukraine's the presidential election.

Burkhalter, chairman of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, was meeting with Putin to talk about Ukraine and the status of OSCE observers there. Seven international military observers with an OSCE mission were taken hostage by pro-Russian insurgents in the eastern city of Slovyansk for days and released only Saturday.

Russia and the West have expressed a desire for the OSCE to play a greater role in defusing the tensions in Ukraine.

Contributing: The Associated Press

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