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 mutual accusations of responsibility 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 of a Moscow-backed president.
The resulting war has both crippled the ex-Soviet state's economy and chilled Western relations with Russia -- which is under growing isolation but still fervently denies it plays any part in its southwestern neighbour's affairs.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and his foreign allies believe that Russia's 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 politically off-balance and forced to finance a military operation it can ill afford.
Ukraine relies on international lending to stay solvent but lacks the resources to keep living standards from slipping further from levels that were already among Europe's worst.
- Back to Minsk -
Some analysts believe that the situation is being mitigated somewhat by enduring diplomatic efforts to avert a "frozen conflict" 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 seek 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 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 Kiev and combattants have radically different readings of what that document says.
Monday's talks are meant to focus on agreeing on 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.
Poroshenko has been under pressure to back the idea from both Merkel and Hollande. Yet several hundred residents of the Kiev-controlled frontline port of Mariupol -- whose eastern outskirts have been targeted by insurgent shells -- rallied against the pullback on Sunday out of fear that it would only allow a new rebel advance.
Donetsk separatist negotiator Denis Pushilin told the main opposition news site that he was ready to "spend the entire week in Minsk" to get the deal signed.
It also remains highly doubtful that any new demilitarisation agreement would have any affect on the ground.
Monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) have for weeks observed the deadliest exchanges involving heavy tanks and powerful rockets that should have been withdrawn months ago.
© 2015 AFP