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Normandy Four declares progress in Ukrainian settlement

The leaders of the Normandy Four countries -- Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine -- declared progress Monday following a meeting in Paris. Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky agreed to renew and expand the mandate of observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) working in eastern Ukraine.

They unanimously approved a 24-hour mandate for OSCE observers to monitor the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine with unlimited access to all areas instead of the 12 hours the current mandate allows.

In addition, the four leaders spoke in favor of implementing an updated demining plan aimed at avoiding civilian casualties.

The parties to the conflict have also agreed to a full exchange of prisoners of war before the end of December. Until then, the Red Cross must have free access to the captives.

They also agreed to withdraw troops from three disengagement points by March 2020 in addition to the three locations where this already took place in 2019.

The settlement of Stanitsa Luganskaya was mentioned as one of these points. Other such settlements will be defined within the framework of the contact group working in Minsk.

The leaders charged the foreign ministers of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine with discussing the conditions that will allow the holding of local elections in eastern Ukrainian territory.

Merkel, Macron, Putin and Zelensky also agreed to gather in four months for another summit to check on the work done and design measures necessary to further promote conflict settlement.

Commenting on the results of the meeting, Merkel said she had the impression that all of the participants had goodwill and a firm intention to achieve progress in settling the conflict.

Russian-Ukrainian disagreements and talks on gas transit

According to Zelensky, the two most difficult questions in his bilateral negotiations with Putin were the renewal of Russian gas transit via Ukraine and holding local elections in eastern Ukrainian territory.

He stressed that his views were diametrically opposed to his Russian counterpart on the issue of border control.

"For Ukraine, it is important to ensure control over all its borders. At the talks with President Putin, I stressed the necessity of the pullout of foreign militant groups and the disarmament of militants," said Zelensky, adding he considered it possible to hold local elections only based on Ukrainian legislation.

Regarding passing a bill on granting a special status to the separatist regions, he said he thought it could limit Ukraine's sovereignty and allow external forces to put pressure on the country's foreign policy.

Zelensky said the issue of gas transit was opened at the meeting and discussions will be continued by appointed advisors of the two presidents.

In turn, Putin said he insisted on committing the special status of the separatist regions to legislation because it is suggested by the Minsk agreement, which is a roadmap for the settlement of the Ukrainian conflict approved by Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine.

"The position on the border -- our position -- it is necessary to fulfill the Minsk agreement. It says Ukraine begins to establish control over this territory the day after the elections and finally this process is completed after the end of all these procedures. All the points of the agreement are linked. If you violate one point [of the agreement], the rewriting of others will begin, and then everything will collapse," he said.

Putin added that it was possible to speak about a thaw between Moscow and Kiev.

"Can we speak about thaw? I think yes. We have now met in the Normandy format and discussed a very important wide range of issues, and we have made progress on many of them," he said, noting that the work was "very useful".

Putin vowed to do everything to end the conflict in Ukraine but stressed the necessity of direct dialogue between the separatist regions and Kiev.

As for gas deliveries, he said Russia was ready to sell the fuel to Ukraine 25% cheaper than it currently pays for European supplies.

Russia to expel two German diplomats

Commenting on the expulsion of two Russian diplomats from Germany over a "lack of cooperation" in the investigation of the murder of former Chechen militant Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, Putin said it was "inappropriate" and promised that Russia's response will be identical.

Putin said in criminal affairs, it was necessary to cooperate on all stages, recalling that Russia requested Khangoshvili's extradition many times but did not find Germany understanding.

Germany expelled two Russian diplomats Wednesday for Moscow's alleged role in the murder of 40-year-old Khangoshvili in Berlin.

Khangoshvili fought against Russians during the Second Chechen War from 1999 to 2009 and worked in both Georgia and Ukraine against Russian interests, according to Deutsche Welle.

Russia sees political motivation in WADA decision to ban its athletes

Asked about the decision by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to ban Russian athletes from international sporting events, Putin said that as there were no complaints about the Russian National Olympic Committee, the Russian team must compete under the national flag as it is prescribed by the Olympic Charter.

He explained that according to the legal norms, punishments cannot be collective and apply to people who have nothing to do with certain violations.

"Decisions on collective punishments show that they are based not on concern for the purity of world sport but on political considerations that have nothing to do with the interests of sport and the Olympic movement," he said.

On Monday, WADA announced its decision to ban Russia from major international competitions for four years. Russian athletes will be able to compete under a neutral flag and the country's officials and representatives will be barred from participation.

WADA also prohibited Russia from hosting and bidding for hosting major events during the same period.

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