The embattled acting president of Ukraine yesterday promised not to prosecute pro-Russian militants occupying government buildings in the east of the country if they laid down their arms and halted a four-day standoff.
The olive branch came as the clock ticked down to a Friday morning deadline for the separatists to walk out of the state security building in the eastern city of Lugansk and the seat of government in nearby Donetsk or face the possible use of force.
The armed assailants want the heavily Russified east of the culturally splintered ex-Soviet nation to hold independence referendums like the one that led to Moscow's annexation of Crimea last month.
Pro-Russian separatists reinforced barricades around the state security building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk and called on President Vladimir Putin for help after the government warned it could use force to restore order.
Protesters were also engaged in talks to ease the standoff, which Kiev has said could provide a pretext for a Russian invasion.
Their demands have added extra urgency to the first round of direct talks that EU and US diplomats have managed to convince both Moscow and Kiev to join at the end of next week.
Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov, in power since the February 22 ouster of a pro-Russian leader but deemed illegitimate by the Kremlin, told lawmakers that Ukraine's latest secessionist crisis could be resolved peacefully.
"If people lay down their arms and free the administration buildings... we guarantee that we will not launch any criminal proceedings against them," he promised.
The Donetsk separatists had earlier proclaimed the creation of their own "people's republic" and called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to push the tens of thousands of troops now massed along the border into Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland.
Many in Ukraine's southeast -- a region with a much longer history of Russian control that stretches back to tsarist times -- are wary of the more nationalist leaders who rose to power in Kiev. They have been looking to Putin for help.
But the two building occupations have drawn only small rallies of supporters. Some polls show that the region's majority would actually prefer avoiding joining the Russian Federation.
Both Washington and EU nations have accused the Kremlin of orchestrating the unrest in the east in order to have an excuse to invade the region -- a charge denied by Moscow.
But a seeming breakthrough in the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War era emerged on Tuesday when EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton confirmed that both Moscow and Kiev have agreed to join US officials for four-way talks. They are expected to be held in either Vienna or Geneva on April 17.
Meanwhile, Russian lawmakers at the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly were stripped of their voting rights until the end of 2014 over Moscow's annexation of Crimea.