'Grave concern' about Ukraine fighting at four-way talks
The French, German, Russian and Ukranian foreign ministers expressed "grave concern" Tuesday about violations of a shaky ceasefire in separatist-held east Ukraine but pledged to continue dialogue.
As surging fighting around hotspots put fresh pressure on the accord, the four gathered in Berlin late Monday to assess progress in the truce deal agreed in February between the Ukraine government and pro-Russian rebels to end a conflict that has killed more than 6,000 people over the past year.
Host Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany admitted the five-hour-long talks had been "very long, very intensive and at times very contentious" given the tense situation on the ground.
"We must ensure that the ceasefire is respected a lot more comprehensively than it was in recent days," he told reporters.
In a final statement, the four ministers expressed "grave concern at the recent outbreak of fights over the last weekend".
This included the use of heavy weapons around the village of Shyrokyne, on the outskirts of the strategic port city of Mariupol, and at Donetsk airport.
After weeks in which the ceasefire agreed in the Belarussian capital Minsk appeared to be largely holding despite isolated skirmishes, clashes seemed to be mounting in flashpoint areas.
Ukrainian army spokesman Oleksandr Motuzianyk said Monday one soldier had been killed and six hurt in the past 24 hours. Separatist officials said four civilians had been injured in the conflict zone.
European OSCE monitors reported "renewed intensive fighting" Sunday around the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, with more than 1,166 explosions in under six hours, mainly from artillery and mortar fire.
In accordance with the Minsk deal, the two sides claim to have withdrawn heavy arms from the frontline but the OSCE said "weapons with a calibre larger than 100mm were used by both sides during the fighting".
NATO believes Russia has supplied more troops and weapons to the rebels, an unnamed alliance official was quoted as saying at the weekend by German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
The ministers in Berlin renewed their call for the withdrawal of such weapons, and extended the appeal to include "heavy weapons below 100mm as well as all types of tanks".
They underlined their appeal to both sides "to establish permanent and unfettered access" for monitors from the OSCE, which also dispatched representatives to the meeting in the German capital.
- 'Support the process' -
Around Shyrokyne, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said dozens of mortar rounds were traded Sunday and heavy artillery fire from rebels "shook buildings across Mariupol".
The OSCE, which has some 400 civilian monitors on the ground, complains that both sides are intimidating its monitors or restricting their movements in east Ukraine.
The OSCE parliamentary assembly's Finnish president Ilkka Kanerva said last week he was "convinced of the need to seriously consider an international peacekeeping mission".
Ukraine has also repeatedly called for such a force, despite Moscow's resistance.
Steinmeier said as the talks got underway that there had been "a certain calming of eastern Ukraine" in the last two months and that it was now key to move forward with concrete measures that would improve the situation for those living in the area.
The ministers said that with this aim, it was crucial that three-party working groups on security, the political process, humanitarian issues and economic affairs and rehabilitation be launched "as soon as possible" with representatives from Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE.
France and Germany said that their junior foreign ministers would continue to "oversee the implementation" of the Minsk accord with their Russian and Ukrainian counterparts.
"We remain committed to support the process whenever necessary," the four ministers added.
The results of the talks in Berlin will be discussed at a meeting of G7 foreign ministers in the northern German city of Luebeck on Tuesday and Wednesday that will be attended by US Secretary of State John Kerry.
© 2015 AFP