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Ukraine Paralympic chief says will quit Games if Russia invades

By Alexei Anishchuk

SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Ukraine's Paralympic chief said on Friday his team would quit the Winter Paralympic Games if Russia invaded his home country, adding that he hoped the competition would be able to spread peace instead.

Russia is holding the Games in the Black Sea resort of Sochi at a time when it is being criticized for its actions in Ukraine's southern region of Crimea, where the West accuses Russia of seizing military and government institutions.

Moscow says the armed men in Crimea are members of local self-defense units while Putin says he has the right to send in troops to defend Russian compatriots but that so far he has seen no need to do so.

"If there is an escalation of the conflict, intervention on the territory of our country, God forbid the worst, we would not be able to stay here, we would go," Ukraine's Paralympic chief, Valeriy Sushkevich, told a news conference.

Many countries have cancelled plans to send government ministers and members of royal families to the Games because of events in Crimea, where the parliament has voted to join Russia and hold a referendum on its status on March 16.

Speaking hours before the opening ceremony, Sushkevich said he had a "calm and reserved" conversation with Putin.

"I repeated my one request, the one and most important request, that before and during (the Games) there will be peace," he said, adding that the Russian leader answered that he would think about his words.

"The Ukrainian team, as well as hoping for good results, came with colossal hopes for peace, peace in our country, in Europe, in the world. I am sure .. that the majority is aware of the colossal danger to peace and the right of every person to have peace in the current situation."

Putin later told International Paralympic Committee (IPC) president Philip Craven: "I very much hope the Paralympics will help us reduce the degree of passions around Ukraine".

On Tuesday, Putin told a news conference that any boycott of the Paralympics over Ukraine would be "the height of cynicism".

His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that in Putin's meeting with Sushkevich on Thursday "there was discussion of the fact that a sports celebration - all the more so one like the Paralympic Games - cannot and must not be affected by ... the international agenda or politics," Interfax reported.

(Writing by Elizabeth Piper, editing by Ed Osmond) nL6N0M41F6

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