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Moscow (AFP) - Russia announced Tuesday it will recognise separatist polls in Ukraine next weekend, sparking an angry reaction from Washington and Kiev's newly elected pro-Western leaders.
The rebel elections on Sunday should "go ahead as agreed" and Russia will "recognise the results", Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the Izvestia daily.
Lavrov's remarks were seen as one of Moscow's most overt acts of support for the separatists to date, and came as AFP learned that the EU has decided to maintain its punishing sanctions on Russia.
Moscow rejects Western accusations that it is behind the armed uprising in Ukraine's east in which around 3,700 people have been died since April.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said Moscow's recognition of the rebel votes would be "a clear violation of the commitments made by both Russia and the separatists" in the truce agreement signed in the Belarussian capital Minsk on September 5.
President Petro Poroshenko's spokesman also said the rebel polls "put the entire peace process under threat".
The row followed an increase in ceasefire violations in the wake of Sunday's parliamentary election, in which Poroshenko's allies won a convincing victory.
Ukraine's top leadership on Tuesday met visiting US Senator James Inhofe, one of the leading proponents of sending Ukraine military aid.
Inhofe said that he received a list of weapons Ukraine needs from Defence Minister Stepan Poltorak and will take it back to his armed services senate committee.
"I don't want to be specific about what kind of weapons" were sought, he told a briefing, but expressed certainty that the aid could be approved within four or five days.
Artillery explosions and small arms fire could be heard in the rebel-controlled city of Donetsk Tuesday as Ukraine's military lost two soldiers and was forced to abandon an checkpoint at the village of Smile near Lugansk, which has been encircled for nearly fortnight.
Ukraine's military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said 10 servicemen have died there since September.
"We are currently identifying bodies and searching for missing soldiers," he said.
- EU maintain sanctions -
European leaders meeting in Brussels Tuesday decided to uphold sanctions on Russia, AFP learned.
"Member states are quite united. There have been no developements on the ground or change of attitude by Russia to justify the rethinking of the sanctions," a diplomatic source said.
The EU sanctions, coupled with similar measures by the United States, are meant to pressure Russia for backing the rebels and annexing Ukraine's Black Sea province of Crimea in March.
The sanctions have already bitten deeply into the faltering Russian economy and spurred the kind of East-West tensions last seen during the Cold War.
With over 95 percent of ballots counted from Sunday's Ukraine parliamentary election, the shape of a future ruling alliance was becoming clearer.
The Petro Poroshenko Bloc remained marginally behind Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk's People's Front, with about 22 percent of the vote each.
- Three-way coalition -
The third-placed Self-Reliance party, likewise nationalist and pro-Western, confirmed reports it was considering joining a three-way coalition.
Yatsenyuk is expected to retain the premier's post.
One of Poroshenko's main policies is to make peace with the separatists, granting them autonomy, though not independence. That task looked harder than ever with the rebel elections approaching and their boycott of Sunday's poll for the national parliament.
Poroshenko's government must also tackle corruption and massive debt, and resolve a near permanent crisis over Russian gas supplies.
But Western leaders, who hailed the election as a democratic milestone, have promised to stand by the embattled country.
The head of the EU executive, Jose Manuel Barroso, called the election a "victory of democracy and European reforms", and French President Francois Hollande telephoned Poroshenko to congratulate him on the manner it was held.
US President Barack Obama called the election -- declared mostly fair by a European observer team -- an "important milestone in Ukraine's democratic development".
Sunday's election was billed as the final touch to a pro-Western revolution that began in February, when huge street protests ousted Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovych after he abruptly rejected a landmark Ukraine-EU pact.
Communists and other Yanukovych allies were routed, although a party made up of his former associates won a small share of seats.