Moscow denies Russian jets violated Ukraine airspace

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk claimed on Saturday Russia wanted to “provoke Ukraine to start a war”

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Russia's defense ministry on Saturday denied claims by the Pentagon and Ukraine's pro-Western leader that its planes had repeatedly violated Ukrainian airspace in recent days.

“Russia's airspace monitoring systems have not registered any violations of air borders of the states adjacent to Russia, including Ukraine,” the defense ministry said in a statement carried by the state ITAR TASS news agency.

The Pentagon said Russian warplanes had violated Ukraine's airspace several times on Thursday and Friday while Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk claimed on Saturday Russia wanted to “provoke Ukraine to start a war.”

“Russian military aircraft today overnight crossed and violated Ukrainian airspace seven times. The only reason is to provoke Ukraine to start a war,” he told journalists at a briefing in Rome, following a meeting with Pope Francis and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

He said the seizure of 13 international OSCE observers by pro-Kremlin rebels who accuse them of being “NATO spies” was “another proof and evidence that these so-called peaceful protesters with Russian ideas are terrorists.”

Russia pledged Saturday to help free the observers, who were sent to Ukraine to monitor an April 17 accord signed in Geneva between Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the European Union that was meant to de-escalate the dangerous crisis in the ex-Soviet republic.

The Ukrainian premier -- who is cutting short his trip will miss the canonisation of John Paul II and John XXIII because of rising tensions in the eastern part of the ex-Soviet country -- said “Russian aggression aims to undermine global stability.”

“We urge Russia to pull back its security forces. We urge Russia to leave us alone,” he said, amid fears that Russia could be about to invade.

Yatsenyuk met Pope Francis for a private audience on Saturday, and said he had “asked his Holiness to pray for my country and peace in Europe.”

At an exchange of gifts, Yatsenyuk presented Francis with a photograph of Maidan square in Kiev on New Year's night.

“This is where Ukrainians fought for their freedom and rights. Millions of people,” he said.

The pope in return gave the Ukraine leader a pen, saying “I hope this pen will sign the peace”, to which Yatsenyuk replied “I hope so.”

As the two leaders parted, Francis put his hand on his chest and said “I will do everything possible” for peace.

The Group of Seven rich countries have agreed to slap new sanctions on Moscow as early as Monday. Russia has warned it has a “right” to invade to protect Ukraine's Russian-speaking population concentrated in the east and southeast.