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Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday called on militant Ukrainians to cancel a referendum to join Russia that many feared would ignite further killings in volatile east Ukraine.

The planned referendum appeared similar to one held in Crimea that Putin used as a pretext to invade and make part of Russia - creating what Europe said was its greatest crisis in decades.

"We believe that the most important thing is to create direct, full-fledged dialogue between the Kiev authorities and representatives of southeast Ukraine," Putin said.

Pro-Russian militant 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 delay, RT.com said.

Putin also said he had withdrawn some of the estimated 40,000 Russian troops from the Ukraine border. Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said "we have seen no change in the Russian force posture along the Ukrainian border."

Valeriy Konovalyuk, a former deputy governor in of Donetsk, said Putin's remarks are "a signal that Russia's president is ready to engage in a normal political dialog."

It shows Russia "will show restraint and understanding in the process," said Konvalyuk, a member of the Regions Party of ousted president Yanukovych.

Putin blamed the crisis not on pro-Russian militants who have overtaken several cities in east Ukraine but on the central government in Kiev for ousting a president Putin supported - Viktor Yanukovych - who had overseen the killing of more than 80 protesters in downtown Kiev and then fled to Russia.

Ukraine's government has been engaged in a military offensive outside the cities where a referendum planned for Sunday was to ask for autonomy from Kiev or to join Russia. At least 34 people have died in that offensive.

Putin called on Ukraine's military to halt operations and begin negotiations that could lead to more autonomy for east Ukraine. But Ukraine says Putin is merely trying to prevent a national May 25 presidential election that will show that Ukrainians want a president who rejects Russia and seeks closer ties to Europe.

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

Just last week Putin had said the East Ukrainians had a right to determine whether they wanted to secede and that the Russian parliament gave him authority to take military means to protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine.

Leading Ukraine presidential candidate and chocolate magnate Petro Poroshenko said there must be "zero tolerance" for the armed militants.

Meanwhile, President Obama notified Congress that he intends to withdraw Russia from a trade preference program for less advanced developing countries. The move may raise taxes on Russian imports, of which there are few coming into the USA.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said Obama must go after Russia's gas and oil sectors if he wants to alter Russia's support for Ukraine militants.

"I don't think the Russians believe that America will do it," he said.

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