Four reported killed in Ukraine ahead of crunch Paris talks
Ukrainian rebels Tuesday accused government forces of killing three civilians in attacks launched hours before the start of talks in Paris on ways to halt the 15-month separatist war.
Kiev's Western-backed military command reported the death of one soldier and accused the pro-Russian rebels of launching the heaviest wave of mortar and artillery fire since the start of the year in one relatively peaceful region.
The daily bloodshed and destruction of housing underscores a repeated failure by diplomats to find a way out of a crisis that has killed 6,500 people and plunged East-West relations to a post-Cold War low.
It has also pushed Russian President Vladimir Putin to seek a closer alliance with China and build up Latin American military cooperation and trade -- two developments of particular concern to Washington and its own strategic plans.
Putin resolutely denies orchestrating the war to pay back Kiev for its February 2014 ouster of a Kremlin-backed leader who had ditched a landmark alliance with the European Union to instead maintain the ex-Soviet state's more traditional Russian ties.
Ukraine itself now threatens to turn into a frozen conflict that grows more deadly in the summer -- a season where forests provide better cover and ground movements are easier -- and cuts off cash-strapped Kiev from its main industrial base.
- Low expectations -
The insurgents reported one of the three civilian deaths in a village on the outskirts of Donetsk -- a coal mine-pitted city abandoned by half its estimated million residents that insurgents have turned into their de facto capital.
Gennadiy Moskal -- a respected former deputy interior minister tasked by Kiev with reining in the neighbouring separatist province of Lugansk -- called counter-strikes launched by guerrillas in his own region "unlike any we have seen since the start of the year".
The violence has pushed to more than 60 the number of soldiers and civilians killed this month. The rebels usually do not report casualty figures but Kiev thinks they are bigger than the ones suffered by its own troops.
Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said Monday that "we do not know their losses but they are serious".
The separatists have called the government forces' attacks a "grave" violation of the Minsk agreement that Russia and Ukraine signed during February negotiations spearheaded by the leaders of Germany and France.
The four countries' foreign ministers are due to meet in Paris later Tuesday with the hope of at least easing the bloodshed in the weeks to come.
EU foreign ministers Monday extended expiring economic restrictions on Russia through to the end of January -- an expected decision that immediately saw Moscow threaten to prolonge its own sweeping Western food import ban.
Punitive steps by the West appear to have done little to alter Putin's thinking and seen public opinion rally even more firmly around the veteran Kremlin chief -- whose rule was built on patriotic fervour and nationalist rhetoric.
But the sanctions have been welcomed by Kiev -- and seen as the only step that splintered EU leaders could agree on at a time of economic uncertainty and worries about an even more militant approach from Russia's quickly growing army.
"The positions of Ukraine, Germany and France are firmly coordinated," Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said on the eve of the talks.
His own personal envoy will travel to Minsk on Tuesday for separate European-mediated talks with a Russian representative that will also be attended by separatist negotiators from Lugansk and Donetsk.
Those negotiations have produced little progress and seen Heidi Tagliavini -- a veteran Swiss diplomat who has mediated the discussions under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe -- submit her resignation after a particularly heated session last month.
Her place will be taken up in Minsk by Martin Sajdik -- an Austrian diplomat who was deputy head of Vienna's Moscow embassy in the final three years of the old Soviet regime.
© 2015 AFP