Kerry, Lavrov in 'hopeful' talks as Ukraine toll tops 6,000

2nd March 2015, Comments 0 comments

The US and Russian foreign ministers expressed cautious optimism after holding talks in Geneva Monday to end fighting in Ukraine, where the UN says more than 6,000 people have died in less than a year.

The meeting between John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov in Geneva was just one of several attempts at mediation on the conflict Monday, as high-stakes talks to resolve a bitter gas dispute between Kiev and Moscow took place in Brussels.

Speaking separately after their 80-minute meeting, Kerry and Lavrov both cautiously said a February 15 ceasefire was on the right track, despite repeated breaches of the peace deal that have left hundreds dead.

The Russian foreign minister welcomed "tangible progress" in the implementation of the agreement reached in Minsk last month, saying "the ceasefire is being consolidated, heavy weapons are withdrawn."

Kerry, meanwhile, said he was "very hopeful" that his talks with Lavrov would help bring about the change needed to end fighting.

"Our hope is that within the next hours, and certainly not more than days, this (ceasefire) will be fully implemented," he said.

Underlining this momentum, the Russian, Ukrainian, French and German leaders agreed to hold four-way telephone talks on the crisis Monday evening, the Interfax news agency quoted a Kremlin advisor as saying.

But Kerry cautioned that there so far had been "a kind of cherry-picking, a piecemeal selectivity to the application of the Minsk agreements."

While fighting has broadly halted along much of Ukraine's frontline, several incidents took place over the weekend, with press photographer Sergiy Nikolayev killed by a mortar shell and eight soldiers injured by rebel fire.

Ukraine's army said Monday that one soldier had been killed, but the ceasefire was still broadly holding.

Both sides have also begun to pull back some heavy weaponry from the frontline, but monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have said it is too early to confirm a full pullback.

"I underscored this morning that if there continues to be this broad swathe of non-compliance... then there would be inevitable consequences that would place further strain on Russia's economy," Kerry said, referring to further sanctions that the US and EU are working on.

- 'Crime against humanity?' -

The United Nations, meanwhile, cast a cloud on hopes raised by the talks with a report that painted a bleak picture of developments in the country.

"More than 6,000 lives have now been lost in less than a year due to the fighting in eastern Ukraine," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said in a statement.

The report detailed how the conflict was affecting civilians, pointing to arbitrary detention, torture and enforced disappearances committed mainly by armed groups but also in some cases by Ukrainian law enforcement agencies.

The swelling violence and dire living conditions have forced increasing numbers of people to flee, and by mid-February, at least one million people had been registered as internally displaced inside Ukraine.

"Many have been trapped in conflict zones, forced to shelter in basements, with hardly any drinking water, food, heating, electricity or basic medical supplies," Zeid said.

Speaking in Geneva at the launch of the report, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic said "the deliberate targeting of civilian areas may constitute a war crime, and if widespread and systematic, a crime against humanity."

Kerry said he hoped that the Geneva talks would lead to further de-escalation.

- Gas talks -

In Brussels, three-way gas talks kicked off between the energy ministers of Ukraine and Russia, together with European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic.

Russian state-owned gas giant Gazprom threatened last week to cut deliveries to Ukraine over a dispute related to Moscow's move to supply gas directly to separatist areas and then demand that Kiev pay for it.

Rebel leaders in east Ukraine said that Kiev had suddenly ceased gas supplies, and asked for access to gas from Russia.

Ukraine's national gas company Naftogas did stop pumping gas to the separatist areas last month, saying it could not deliver due to a damaged pipeline, but added that deliveries resumed a few hours later.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused Ukraine of perpetrating a kind of "genocide" by denying energy to four million people living in territories hit by a humanitarian crisis.

The Kremlin appeared to soften its rhetoric, however, after the European Union unveiled plans last week for a continent-wide single energy market, with the goal of decreasing its reliance on Russian gas.

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© 2015 AFP

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