Leaders arrive for Ukraine peace summit on bloody day
Ukraine and Russia's presidents joined French and German leaders in Minsk on Wednesday for a crucial peace summit after dozens of people died in one of the bloodiest days in the 10-month Ukraine conflict.
President Francois Hollande, Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukraine's Petro Poroshenko were to hold brief talks before meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom they accuse of masterminding the conflict.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the talks would be a "turning point for good or bad", while Russia -- accused by the West of fomenting the war by pouring troops and weapons across the border -- voiced optimism.
Dozens of people were reported killed in the run-up to the summit, the climax of a frantic diplomatic push to prevent the worst East-West crisis since the end of the Cold War from escalating.
Germany said the meeting, the most intensive international push for an end to the bloodshed in the east of the former Soviet state, offered a "glimmer of hope, nothing more".
"Experts are working, there is noticeable progress," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow, although he signalled there would be no flexibility on Ukraine's demand that it be given back control of its border with Russia.
Poroshenko warned he could introduce martial law throughout the country if the Minsk talks failed to stop the war that has already claimed more than 5,300 lives.
Martial law would mark a grave escalation of the crisis, freeing up military resources for the fight in the east but also likely leading to the cutting off of foreign investment for cash-strapped Ukraine, including a vital IMF loan.
- 'One voice' -
The pro-Western leader said he, Hollande and Merkel would speak "with one voice" to Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom they accuse of backing the rebellion.
"The key position is that we need an unconditional ceasefire," he said.
US President Barack Obama has warned Putin that Russia -- already under punishing EU and US sanctions -- would be made to pay if the talks fail.
The bloodletting has been relentless in recent weeks as the rebels have pushed deeper into government-held territory and Kiev forces have counter-attacked.
At least 48 people were reported killed in the last 24 hours, including 16 in a devastating rocket attack on Kramatorsk, the Ukrainian government's eastern military headquarters and administrative hub.
"I couldn't care less whether we're under the Ukrainians or the separatists. I just want peace," said Irina, a war-weary doctor in rebel-controlled eastern Ukraine.
Poroshenko, who was scheduled to join a European Union summit in Brussels on Thursday to discuss the conflict, will in Minsk come face-to-face with Putin for the first time since October.
If the talks fail, Obama has warned that Washington may decide to start providing lethal weapons to Ukraine, a step many European leaders oppose for fear of getting drawn into open conflict with Russia.
On Tuesday, Obama spoke to Putin by phone and sought to pressure him to rein in the rebels, who have close political links to Moscow, and embrace the chance for peace.
"If Russia continues its aggressive actions in Ukraine, including by sending troops, weapons, and financing to support the separatists, the costs for Russia will rise," the White House said.
Britain has also said it may provide weapons, with Prime Minister David Cameron warning against the "appeasement" of Russia, in apparent reference to Britain's concessions to Hitler in the 1930s.
"That's why it's right to keep the sanctions in place, it's right to keep the European Union and America together on this issue and it's right to stand up to President Putin," Cameron said.
- New proposals, old plans -
The plan to be discussed in Minsk is based largely on a repeatedly broken peace deal between Kiev and the rebels in September.
The hope is that at the very least a ceasefire can be agreed.
But a key sticking point is whether a new deal will extend rebel control over 500-square kilometres (200-square miles) of territory seized over the past month.
As leaders converged on Minsk, fighting raged on the ground with both sides trying to strengthen their hand at the negotiating table.
Insurgents have been battling for weeks to take the rail hub of Debaltseve, while Ukrainian forces on Tuesday captured ground around the port city of Mariupol.
Kiev is desperate to get Putin -- who has watched Western sanctions and low oil prices batter the Russian economy -- to put his signature on a deal.
But the former KGB spy has consistently told Ukraine's government it needs to reach an agreement with the rebels, not with him, denying Moscow is providing military help to the insurgents.
Moscow is pushing for the separatist-held territories to be granted a large degree of autonomy, while Ukraine is demanding it get control back over some 400 kilometres (250 miles) of its border with Russia.
© 2015 AFP