Ukraine ceasefire under pressure as four-way talks resume
The French, German, Russian and Ukranian foreign ministers met to review a shaky ceasefire in separatist-held east Ukraine Monday as surging fighting around hotspots put fresh pressure on the accord.
The four gathered in Berlin for evening talks 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.
At stake for Moscow is the easing of punishing Western sanctions introduced as separatist insurgents, allegedly operating with Russian military assistance, seized control of a swathe of territory in the east.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who hosted the meeting, admitted the situation remained fragile.
He said the Berlin talks were aimed at shoring up "a certain calming of eastern Ukraine" in the last two months while moving forward with a political process laid out in the agreement reached in the Belarussian capital Minsk.
Steinmeier said the group aimed in particular to make progress "on how humanitarian aid in eastern Ukraine can finally be delivered" to the long-suffering population there, and a path toward new elections.
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 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In accordance with the Minsk deal, the two sides claim to have withdrawn heavy arms from the frontline but the OSCE said "weapons with a calibre larger than 100mm were used by both sides during the fighting".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.
Around Shyrokyne, near the strategic port of Mariupol, the largest remaining city in the conflict zone still in government hands, 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".
- Call for peacekeepers -
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, which has repeatedly called for such a force, is expected to bring it up at the Berlin talks despite Moscow's resistance.
"We will do everything we can to convince our Western partners and the Russians of the need for a peacekeeping force," said Boris Lozhkin, chief of staff to Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko.
"Contrary to the OSCE, peacekeepers are armed and can respond in case of attack," he added, saying a force of "thousands" of troops would be needed.
Ukraine's Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin also wants to see the release of hundreds of prisoners Kiev says are held by the rebels, one of the key points agreed in the Minsk deal.
Steinmeier said the issue would also be on the table Tuesday in the German capital.
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.
Steinmeier said earlier that Russia could only expect relief from international sanctions with constructive action.
"The ball is in Moscow's court," he said in an interview in Monday's Die Welt newspaper.
"The sanctions are conditional on implementing the agreements."
© 2015 AFP