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By Ronald Popeski
(Reuters) - The "liberation" of Ukraine's Donbas region is an "unconditional priority" for Moscow, while other Ukrainian territories should decide their future on their own, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Sunday.
Lavrov was speaking in an interview with France's TF1 television channel as Russia pressed on with its offensive to secure control of key towns in Donbas, Ukraine's traditional industrial heartland made up of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
He reiterated Moscow's claims that its "special military operation" in Ukraine is to demilitarise its neighbour after waves of NATO's eastward expansion and cleanse it of what it sees as "Nazi"-inspired nationalism. Kyiv and Western countries see those claims as baseless pretexts for a land grab.
"The liberation of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, recognised by the Russian Federation as independent states, is an unconditional priority," Lavrov said, according to a text released by Russia's Foreign Ministry.
For the rest of the territories in Ukraine, he said: "I do not believe that they will be happy to return to the authority of a neo-Nazi regime that has proven it is Russophobic in essence. These people must decide for themselves."
Russia's incursion, he said, became "inevitable" after Western countries failed to heed what he described as warnings about Ukraine's disregard for, and military attacks on, its Russian-speaking citizens.
Ukraine has denied making any such attacks.
In recent weeks, Russia has focused its drive on Donbas after pulling back from a failed advance on Kyiv and other Ukrainian regions.
"Yes, people are being killed," Lavrov said. "But the operation is taking so much time primarily because Russian soldiers taking part are under strict orders categorically to avoid attacks and strikes on civilian infrastructure."
The invasion, now in its fourth month, has killed thousands of people in Ukraine and displaced millions. According to the United Nations, more than 6.7 million refugees have fled Ukraine since Feb. 24.
There are some 14,388 cases of Russian alleged war crimes being probed by Ukraine's Prosecutor General's Office and several Russian soldiers have pleaded guilty in cases of shelling Ukraine and killing civilians.
(Reporting in Melbourne by Lidia Kelly and Ron Popeski in Winnipeg; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Daniel Wallis)