Ukraine's frontlines calm ahead of gas talks

2nd March 2015, Comments 0 comments

Ukraine's frontlines were relatively calm on Sunday ahead of high-level EU-mediated gas talks between Kiev and Moscow, as journalists mourned the killing by mortar fire of a Ukrainian photographer.

Kiev's security officials said there was no fire after midnight on Ukraine's positions and no Ukrainian soldiers had been killed over the past 24 hours.

Security spokesman Andriy Lysenko, however, said that eight soldiers were injured after rebels shot at Kiev's positions late Saturday, including from a tank and a grenade launcher.

The relative quiet in eastern Ukraine has set in following a shaky start a European-brokered peace plan to end fighting that has killed at least 5,800 people since last April.

Both sides had begun to pull back some heavy weaponry from the frontline, with rebels claiming Sunday that they will complete the pullback by the end of the weekend.

Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have reported weapons movements on both sides but say it is too early to confirm a full pull-back.

Speaking at the UN Security Council Friday, the OSCE's envoy to Ukraine Heidi Tagliavini said the current situation was at a "crossroads" where the risk of further escalation remained high despite "encouraging signs."

US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Switzerland late Sunday for what looked set to be tense discussions with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov over Ukraine, with efforts to implement a tattered ceasefire topping the agenda for the Monday morning talks.

Despite a fall in the number of violations of a truce implemented on February 15 between Russia, Ukraine and the pro-Moscow rebels in the eastern part of the country, it was "too soon to tell if we are in any way out of the woods," a State Department official travelling with Kerry told reporters.

"At this point a further pullback of heavy weapons is what's required. There are continued violations of the agreement that we've also noted."

- Journalist killed -

In Kiev, colleagues mourned the death of photojournalist Sergiy Nikolayev from the Ukrainian daily Segodnya, who died after being hit by a mortar shell in Pisky, a village not far from Donetsk airport which Ukraine's forces ceded to the rebels in January.

Nikolayev, 43, succumbed to his injuries, along with a fighter from the ultra-nationalist organisation Right Sector, late Saturday.

The OSCE's media freedom representative Dunja Mujatovic said his death was a "gruesome reminder" of the dire safety conditions for journalists covering the Ukraine conflict. Seven media workers have been killed there since last April, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

In Moscow meanwhile Russian investigators detained Ukrainian lawmaker Alexei Goncharenko and questioned him as part of a probe into a fire last May in the southern Ukrainian city of Odessa, where 50 people were killed after clashes between pro-Russia activists and supporters of Kiev.

Goncharenko's lawyer said later that his client had been released from police custody but had been called to appear before an administrative tribunal on Monday, adding that it was still possible that he would be detained again.

The Ukrainian lawmaker had been in Moscow ahead of a march there Sunday to honour opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down near the Kremlin on Friday .

- Gas dispute -

With the relative hiatus in fighting on the ground, a gas dispute flared up in recent days after Russia's Gazprom began direct deliveries to the separatist-held areas in eastern Ukraine and demanded that Kiev pay for them.

Ukraine's national gas company Naftogas stopped pumping gas to the separatist areas last month, saying it could not deliver due to a damaged pipeline, but then adding that deliveries resumed a few hours later.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused Ukraine of perpetrating a kind of "genocide" by denying energy to four million people living in territories hit by a humanitarian crisis.

The Kremlin appeared to soften its rhetoric however after the European Union unveiled plans Wednesday for a continent-wide single energy market, with the goal of diversifying the bloc's energy sources and decreasing its reliance on Russian gas.

Talks are set for Monday between energy ministers of Ukraine and Russia together with European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic.

Moscow argues that supplies to the east bypassing Kiev fall under the current agreement and must be bankrolled by Ukraine, but the government says it has no control over the volume or usage of such supplies, accusing Gazprom of violating the deal.


© 2015 AFP

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