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Putin warns of civil war in Ukraine as election looms

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Putin warns of civil war in Ukraine as election looms

By Laura Smith-Spark and Victoria Butenko

KIEV, Ukraine (CNN) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Friday of a "dangerous civil war" in Ukraine as fresh violence erupted ahead of this weekend's presidential election.

Putin, addressing an international economic forum in St. Petersburg, said the chaos was the result of a "state coup" in Ukraine "with support of the West, the United States."

Former Soviet states must guard against wider destabilization, he said.

He also defended Russia's recent annexation of Crimea, which was condemned as illegitimate by Kiev and the West.

Putin said Russia was ensuring the "possibility of free will for the people" who chose to join Russia in a democratic referendum in March.

His remarks come as the interim government in Kiev prepares to hold presidential elections Sunday to choose a successor for ousted pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych.

Putin said he would respect the will of the Ukrainian people in the vote -- but reiterated Russia's assertion that according to Ukraine's Constitution, Yanukovych remains the legitimate president.

He also questioned whether the election should be held now given the current violence in eastern Ukraine.

Russian state media cited Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Meshkov as saying Friday that Russia would decide whether or not to recognize the polls only after the vote takes place.

"Let's wait for the elections first. Naturally, when Russia considers this issue (on legitimacy) we will take into account all factors," official news agency ITAR-Tass quotes Meshkov as saying.

Unpaid gas bills

Addressing business leaders, Putin said Russia had tried to help Ukraine in its difficult economic situation.

But he said Ukraine must pay off the hefty arrears owed to Russian energy giant Gazprom for natural gas.

"The risks today of delivery of the gas supply are not our fault but quite honestly, everyone understands that this is because of the transit country Ukraine, which has abused its situation," he said.

"We provided Ukraine with 10 billion cubic meters of gas for free," he added. "This is not sensible; this is really stupid, and we must have limits."

Kiev and European Union leaders have urged Russia not to use the energy supply as a weapon.

Putin said it was important for Russia to maintain good relations with the EU for cooperation in nuclear security, the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking, and to make the world more stable and predictable.

He also called for dialogue between Russia and the United States over the crisis in Ukraine, suggesting Washington had not taken Russia's interests into account until now.

He was also critical of the sanctions imposed on Russia by the West, saying they were "absolutely illegal" and that they are "worsening relations between our states."

At the same time, Putin said that Russia was continuing to cooperate with the United States in areas such as anti-piracy efforts and access to Afghanistan.

Separatists, right-wing militants clash

Clashes between separatists and pro-Ukrainian militants, the latter from the so-called "Donbass battalion" and far-right group Right Sector, were reported Friday morning near Karlivka in central Ukraine.

The chief of staff for Right Sector, Andriy Denysenko, told CNN that the pro-Ukrainian forces wanted to take down a separatist checkpoint in the area but were "attacked" by about 100 separatists.

After a battle lasting about two hours, he said, most of the pro-Ukrainian forces were able to pull back to a Ukrainian military checkpoint near Krasnoarmiysk, but four remained trapped in a cafe.

They cannot be contacted and pro-Ukrainian forces say they were either killed or taken hostage, he said.

Denysenko said there was no confirmed information yet on casualties but denied reports that 10 Right Sector members had been killed.

Disturbances were also reported Friday in Slovyansk, a stronghold for the separatists in the eastern Donetsk region.

A CNN team in Slovyansk heard about 10 explosions in what sounded like the outskirts of the town, following shelling overnight around a militant barricade.

Ukraine's Border Service said Friday that its guards had thwarted another attempt by armed men illegally to bring weapons and ammunition over the border from Russia.

Journalist Victoria Butenko reported from Kiev, and CNN's Laura Smith-Spark reported and wrote from London. CNN's Nick Paton Walsh and Ben Brumfield contributed to this report.

The-CNN-Wire

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