Merkel, Hollande take Ukraine peace plan to Putin
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande head to Moscow on Friday to secure President Vladimir Putin's support for a peace plan to end surging separatist violence in the east.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said talks with Merkel and Hollande late Thursday raised "hope for a ceasefire" after the duo jetted in to Kiev in the biggest push yet to resolve the ten-month conflict.
As fears have soared over an escalation in the conflict, Merkel said on Friday in Berlin that the surprise peace bid was aimed at defending "European peace" and that the duo were not acting merely as "neutral intermediaries".
Hollande said that they were heading to Moscow to "seek a deal" with Putin that would help end the crisis in the long-term.
"Everyone is aware that the first step must be a ceasefire, but that is not enough and there must be a comprehensive settlement," Hollande told reporters ahead of his departure.
The two European leaders fly to Moscow later Friday to meet Putin -- who the West sees as the mastermind behind Ukraine's pro-Moscow rebellion -- in hopes he will sign up to the peace plan.
The frantic high-level diplomacy to end the worst East-West crisis since the end of the Cold War came as US Secretary of State John Kerry also visited Kiev on Thursday and Washington mulled whether to supply arms to the Ukraine army.
"President Putin can make the choices that could end this war," Kerry said, voicing support for the "helpful" Franco-German plan to be put to the Russian leader on Friday.
As pressure grows for a peaceful resolution to the conflict that has killed over 5,300 people, rebel and Ukranian forces on the ground agreed a ceasefire for several hours Friday around the battleground town of Debaltseve to allow civilians to leave, both sides said.
- Evacuating civilians -
An AFP journalist in government-held Debaltseve said some 25 city buses sent by both the rebels and Kiev drove into the shattered town to take civilians out to their respective territories.
The sound of sporadic shelling could be heard in the distance but mortar bombardments in the town itself had halted after days of fierce fighting.
Ukrainian Major General Oleksandr Rozmaznin said that the truce around the town that rebels have almost encircled would last from 0600-0800 GMT and from 1200-1600 GMT on Friday.
Hundreds of civilians have been killed over recent weeks in east Ukraine as fighting spiralled after insurgents ignored an earlier truce deal and pushed into government-held territory.
Before setting off on the surprise diplomatic push, Hollande said Thursday that he and Merkel would "propose a new solution to the conflict based on the territorial integrity of Ukraine".
Merkel is set to arrive in Moscow at 1330 GMT while Hollande will touch down at 1430 GMT, Russia's foreign ministry said.
No confirmed details have emerged of what exactly the new peace proposal contains and there is much disquiet in Kiev after the collapse of the previous peace deal.
Kerry said that the plan is a "counter-proposal" made by Merkel and Hollande to suggestions made earlier this week by Putin. The European plan was then presented to the US and Ukraine for their input Wednesday.
A Western diplomat earlier dismissed Putin's proposals as a "cynical effort" by Moscow to renege on an earlier deal signed in Minsk in September.
- Russian warning -
After meeting with Kerry, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk suggested that Russia should just stick to the widely flouted truce accord agreed in Minsk.
"To have a new deal, not to execute the previous one, seems to me a trap," Yatsenyuk told journalists.
"We urge Russia to implement and execute what was agreed, signed personally by president Putin."
Yatsenyuk warned that the Russian strongman could be seeking to "split the unity between the EU and the US" at a time when the White House is edging closer to starting weapons deliveries to Ukraine.
Russia, accused by the West of arming the separatists, warned that any US move to send weapons to Ukraine would cause "colossal damage" to ties, foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said.
Kerry is to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at a security conference in Munich on Saturday, ahead of Obama holding a "very important" meeting with Merkel at the White House on Monday, Kerry said.
One civilian and two soldiers were killed Friday and 25 wounded in fighting over the past 24 hours, a government official said.
The conflict in Ukraine has claimed more than 5,350 lives since April, including some 220 in just the past three weeks, according to the United Nations.
© 2015 AFP