Putin hosts Merkel, Hollande for crunch Ukraine peace talks
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and France's Francois Hollande met Vladimir Putin on Friday in a desperate bid to prevent a further escalation of violence in Ukraine but hopes of a breakthrough were slim.
The European leaders' late-night talks with the Kremlin strongman were widely seen as a last-ditch attempt to prevent the 10-month conflict in east Ukraine from spilling out of control as Washington is considering whether to supply weapons to Kiev.
Putin and the unsmiling European duo held the closed-door talks around a small round table in an ornate hall in the Kremlin.
A Kremlin official said the leaders were expected to dine together and said she did not know when the talks would end.
The visit is Merkel's first to Moscow since the start of the Ukraine crisis while Hollande made a brief stopover there in December.
Ahead of the talks, Merkel played down hopes of a rapid end to the fighting as she and Hollande sought to convince Putin to sign up to a peace plan to stop a conflict that has claimed more than 5,300 lives.
"We know that it is completely open as to whether we'll succeed in achieving a ceasefire through these talks," Merkel told reporters in Berlin before taking the initiative to Putin.
Merkel and Hollande flew first to Kiev on Thursday, hoping to revive a widely flouted truce accord agreed in Minsk last September.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said the biggest push yet to resolve the 10-month conflict raised "hope for a ceasefire".
The high-level shuttle 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. He is also set to meet Russia's top diplomat Sergei Lavrov at a security conference in Munich this weekend.
- 'Russia cannot redraw map' -
Earlier Friday US Vice President Joe Biden said Ukraine was battling for survival in the face of escalating Russian military involvement.
"We, the US and Europe as a whole, have to stand with Ukraine at this moment," Biden said in Brussels.
"Russia cannot be allowed to redraw the map of Europe.
"President Putin continues to call for new peace plans as his troops roll through the Ukrainian countryside, and he absolutely ignores every agreement his country has signed in the past," Biden said.
The West and Kiev accuse the Kremlin of sending troops and sophisticated weapons across the border to bolster separatists in Ukraine. Moscow has insisted it is not a party to the conflict.
Observers have warned that if the United States gets involved militarily the regional conflict could acquire a dangerous new dimension and turn into a proxy war between Russia and the West.
European Union officials said Thursday that the bloc will blacklist more Russian individuals.
Several rounds of Western sanctions have dealt a wounding blow to Russia's economy but have failed to force Putin to change tack over Ukraine.
Ahead of the talks Hollande said a ceasefire should be "the first step" on the path to a comprehensive settlement
Kerry for his part voiced support for what he called the "helpful" Franco-German plan.
"President Putin can make the choices that could end this war," he said.
No confirmed details have emerged of what exactly the new European proposals contain and there is much disquiet in Kiev after the collapse of the previous peace deal.
Kerry said the plan was 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.
- Evacuating civilians -
As pressure grows for a peaceful resolution, rebel and Ukrainian 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.
An AFP journalist in Debaltseve said some 25 city buses sent by both the rebels and the Kiev government left the shattered town to take civilians out, although only one separatist bus was full.
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.
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.
One civilian and two soldiers were killed Friday and 25 wounded in fighting over the past 24 hours, a government official said.
© 2015 AFP