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Russia hands out passports to 125,000 residents of rebel-held east Ukraine

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MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia has issued passports to 125,000 residents of rebel-held eastern Ukraine, Russia’s interior minister said on Monday, deepening Moscow’s ties with the separatist region even as it begins talks with Kiev aimed at ending the conflict.

President Vladimir Putin in April simplified the procedure for residents of pro-Russian, separatist-held Ukraine to obtain Russians passports, prompting Kiev to call on the West to target Moscow with new international sanctions.

More than 160,000 residents of rebel-held Ukraine have applied for Russian passports, of which 125,000 have received them, Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev was quoted as saying by TASS news agency.

President Vladimir Putin arrived in Paris on Monday to hold talks on the conflict in eastern Ukraine with the leaders of Ukraine, Germany and France. It is the first time the leaders have met for such a summit in three years.

They are expected to push for a ceasefire in the conflict, which has lasted more than five years and killed over 13,000 people. But the prospects of a breakthrough remain bleak, diplomats say.

Kiev accuses Moscow of waging an undeclared war in eastern Ukraine, supplying troops and heavy weapons to the Donbass region. Russia denies that and says the conflict is a civil war.

(Reporting by Anton Zverev and Tom Balmforth; Editing by Pravin Char)

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