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Russian says military moving away from Ukraine

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Zinaida Patskan, 80, stands in front of her destroyed house following a shelling from Ukrainian government forces in Semyonovka village near the major highway which links Kharkiv, outside Slovyansk, Ukraine, Thursday, May 22, 2014. The election is a critical step for Ukraine. Russia, which the West alleges is fomenting the unrest that grips Ukraine’s eastern regions, claims the acting government is a junta; a credible election would bring a level of legitimacy to the government and undermine Moscow’s argument. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Zinaida Patskan, 80, stands in front of her destroyed house following a shelling from Ukrainian government forces in Semyonovka village near the major highway which links Kharkiv, outside Slovyansk, Ukraine, Thursday, May 22, 2014. The election is a critical step for Ukraine. Russia, which the West alleges is fomenting the unrest that grips Ukraine’s eastern regions, claims the acting government is a junta; a credible election would bring a level of legitimacy to the government and undermine Moscow’s argument. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Zinaida Patskan, 80, holds her pet cat Timofey in her destroyed house following a shelling from Ukrainian government forces in Semyonovka village near the major highway which links Kharkiv, outside Slovyansk, Ukraine, Thursday, May 22, 2014. The election is a critical step for Ukraine. Russia, which the West alleges is fomenting the unrest that grips Ukraine’s eastern regions, claims the acting government is a junta; a credible election would bring a level of legitimacy to the government and undermine Moscow’s argument. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin speaks to the media in Shanghai, China, Wednesday, May 21, 2014. China signed a landmark deal Wednesday to buy Russian natural gas worth about $400 billion, giving a boost to diplomatically isolated President Vladimir Putin and expanding Moscow’s ties with Asia. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, Presidential Press Service)

FILE – This, Sunday, May 18, 2014, file photo, shows a body guard of insurgent leader Denis Pushilin, left, holding his weapon during a rally by pro-Russian people in Lenin Square, in Donetsk, Ukraine. In the streets of Donetsk, the separatist leaders and their followers are increasingly derided as a collection of heavily armed, barely employed misfits. Outside of the rebels’ headquarters, it can be difficult to find anyone who agrees with their calls to secede from Ukraine and link this part of the country — with its generations of ethnic and linguistic ties to Russia — to Moscow. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File)

FILE- This Sunday, May 18, 2014, file photo, shows a body guard of insurgent leader Denis Pushilin, back dropped by a statue of Lenin during a rally by pro-Russian people in Lenin Square, in Donetsk, Ukraine. In the streets of Donetsk, the separatist leaders and their followers are increasingly derided as a collection of heavily armed, barely employed misfits. Outside of the rebels’ headquarters, it can be difficult to find anyone who agrees with their calls to secede from Ukraine and link this part of the country — with its generations of ethnic and linguistic ties to Russia — to Moscow. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File)

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SLOVYANSK, Ukraine (AP) — Several trains carrying weapons and planeloads of troops have left regions near Ukraine as part of a massive military pullout, the Russian Defense Ministry said Thursday, even as fighting raged between pro-Russian insurgents and government forces in eastern Ukraine.

The ministry said four trainloads of weapons and 15 Il-76 heavy-lift transport planes left the Belgorod, Bryansk and Rostov regions on Wednesday. The troops are to reach their permanent bases before June 1, the ministry added.

NATO, which estimates that Russia has 40,000 troops along the border with Ukraine, repeated Tuesday that it hadn’t yet seen any signs of a Russian withdrawal.

Russian President Vladimir Putin scoffed at NATO’s skepticism, saying Wednesday that the pullout involving large numbers of troops would take time and “those who aren’t seeing it should look better.” He said the pullout will be clearly visible in satellite images.

The announcement went further than an earlier step by the Russian leader two weeks ago, when he said the troops retreated from the border to shooting ranges.

Putin’s pullout order and his remarks welcoming Ukraine’s presidential election this Sunday reflected an attempt to ease tensions with the West over Ukraine and avoid a new round of Western sanctions.

Pro-Russian insurgents in the east, who have seized government buildings and engaged in clashes with government troops that have left scores dead since April, on Thursday continued battling the Ukrainian forces around Slovyansk, the eastern city that has been the epicenter of fighting.

In the village of Semenovka on the outskirts of Slovyansk, artillery shelling that appeared to come from government positions badly damaged several houses Thursday.

Zinaida Patskan, 80, had the roof of her house torn by an explosion, which also shattered one of the walls. “Why they are hitting us?” she said, bursting into tears. “We are peaceful people!”

Patskan, who wasn’t hurt, said she was hiding under a kitchen table with her cat, Timofey, when the shelling came.

About a hundred Semenovka residents later vented their anger against the central government, demanding that the Ukrainian forces cease their offensive and withdraw from the region. Speakers at the rally also called for boycotting the presidential vote.

Many in the east resent the government in Kiev, which came to power after the ouster of a pro-Russian president in February following mass of protests, seeing it as a bunch of nationalists bent on repressing Russian speakers. But many local residents have grown increasingly exasperated with the rebels, whom they blamed for putting civilians in the crossfire.

Pro-Russian rebels have declared two regions independent following referendums dismissed as a sham by Ukraine and the West, and some called for joining Russia. Putin has ignored the plea as he sought to ease the worst crisis in Russia’s relations with the West since the Cold War.

The United States and the European Union imposed travel bans and

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