Four killed ahead of new Ukraine peace talks
Ukraine on Monday reported the death of four soldiers in widespread clashes with pro-Russian rebels that came only hours ahead of fresh talks on ending the 15-month separatist revolt.
Military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said another 15 servicemen had been wounded in the past 24 hours of fighting across the eastern Russian-speaking provinces of Lugansk and Donetsk.
"The first week of August... has been very tense," Lysenko told reporters.
The insurgents countered that indiscriminate shelling by Kiev's forces had damaged power lines and four buildings in Gorlivka, a rebel bastion more than 30 kilometres (20 miles) northeast of their de facto capital Donetsk.
The local village council said it was checking whether any civilians were killed in the reported attack.
The incessant exchanges of fire and counter-accusations have frustrated Western efforts to resolve Europe's bloodiest and most protracted conflict since the Balkans crises of the 1990s.
More than 6,800 people have died and at least another 1.4 million have been left homeless by a revolt that began across Ukraine's industrial heartland in the wake of the February 2014 ouster in Kiev in a Moscow-backed president.
The resulting war has both crippled the ex-Soviet state's economy and Western relations with Russia -- under growing isolation but still fervently denying playing any part in its southwestern neighbour's affairs.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and his foreign allies believe that Russia's President Vladimir Putin does not necessarily want to annex the two rebellious regions in the same way he seized the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in March 2014.
But they do think the Kremlin is trying to keep Kiev constantly off-balance and in need to finance a military operation it can ill afford.
Ukraine relies on international lending to stay solvent, but still lacks the resources to keep living standards from slipping further from levels that had already been among Europe's worst.
- Back to Minsk -
Some analysts believe that the situation is being mitigated somewhat by unbroken diplomatic efforts to avert a "frozen conflict" from emerging that keeps the EU's eastern frontier on security alert for decades to come.
The warring sides and Russia on Monday launched another round of European-mediated negotiations in the Belarussian capital Minsk that hope to salvage a sweeping but largely ineffective ceasefire and political reconciliation agreement signed nearly six months ago.
That pact -- known as Minsk II due to the immediate failure of its predecessor -- was sealed only after 14 hours of talks between Putin and Poroshenko that were personally attended by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande.
The two European leaders see no alternative to the Minsk solution and insist on its full implementation by the end of the year.
But both Kiev and the fighters have radically different readings on what that document says.
Monday's talks are meant to focus on agreeing the text of a deal to withdraw smaller weapons from a proposed 30-kilometre-wide (18-mile) buffer zone that splits rebel-run areas from the rest of Ukraine.
But monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) have for weeks seen the deadliest exchanges involve heavy tanks and powerful rockets that should have been pulled back months ago.
© 2015 AFP