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France backs off on Russia sanctions ahead of EU Ukraine meeting

media Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk (L) is welcomed by European Council President Herman Van Rompuy ahead of the Brussels emergency summit Reuters/Yves Herman

French President François Hollande took a step back from threats of sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis, declaring that he wanted to increase pressure but not raise tension before a European Union emergency meeting on Thursday. As he spoke, the Crimean parliament voted to join Russia and hold a referendum on staying in Ukraine.

The European Union meeting froze the assets of ousted Ukraine leader Viktor Yanukovych, former prime minister Mykola Azarov and 16 former ministers, businessmen and security chiefs, all on grounds of fraud.

"What do we want?" Hollande said to reporters as he arrived in Brussels. "Not to raise I don't known what sort of tension again but, on the controary, to open dialogue. That's what we did yesterday in Paris. That was a frist step, which I think was useful."

On Wednesday morning French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius called for sanctions against Russian interests if there was no "deescalation" in Crimea, the semi-autonomous region where Russian troops are reported to have taken up positions and pro-Russian forces are in control.

Crimea's parliament on Thursday voted to ask Russian President Vladimir Putin to consider a request for the region to join the Russian federation and its Deputy Prime Minister, Roustam Temirgaliev, said that a referendum on whether to stay part of Ukraine would be held on 16 March.

On Thursday, as German businesses went on record against economic sanctions, Hollande seemed to have softened the French government's tone, calling on Europe to apply "sufficiently strong pressure, diminish tension, open the way to dialogue and finally allow Ukraine to decide its own fate".

His advisors told the AFP news agency that he wanted a "serious warning" to Russia and judged an end to the current crisis more important than sanctions.

During a hyperactive day in Paris Wednesday, Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov refused to meet his new Ukrainian counterpart Andrii Deshchytsia, who had been brought to the French capital by US Secretary of State John Kerry.

On the sidelines of a meeting to discuss helping Lebanon tackle the fallout from Syria's conflict there were a number of meetings between foreign ministers from France, Britian, Germany, Poland, Russia and the US before the action moved to Brussels

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