Kerry flies to Kiev as Ukraine hopes for US arms
US Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday flew in to Kiev where Ukraine's pro-Western leaders hope Washington will send in weapons for their battle against pro-Russian separatists.
His visit comes as international pressure grows for an immediate halt to surging violence, with 19 civilians and troops killed in the latest rebel push into government-held territory in eastern Ukraine.
In Brussels, NATO was set to agree a major boost to the alliance's defences near its Russian borders, including six command centres and a quick-reaction spearhead force of 5,000 troops in response to the Ukraine conflict.
Despite growing talk of Washington changing tack and arming Ukrainian forces, a State Department official said only that Kerry was to unveil $16 million (14 million euros) in fresh US humanitarian aid, particularly to help the displaced.
Kerry will meet President Petro Poroshenko as well as Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, ahead of a security conference in Munich on Friday during which he will sit down with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.
"We have a Russian government that is talking the talk of ceasefire, talking the talk of peace, even as it fuels this conflict," a senior State Department official said.
Ukraine and its Western allies accuse Moscow of sending thousands of regular army troops and weapons to support the rebels who launched an uprising against Kiev in April.
And while Moscow has repeatedly denied the allegations, the separatists are equipped with the advanced weaponry of a regular army.
The fighting has claimed more than 5,358 lives since April, including some 220 in just the past three weeks, according to the United Nations.
- Intensified fighting -
"So the question is if the governments of Ukraine, of the United States, of Europe are appealing for a new sit-down, will the Kremlin spurn that? Or will they sit down and will they push their proxies to do the same?" the US official said.
As the fighting has intensified, Washington has been reviewing its position to see if it should bow to a growing clamour to send heavy weapons to Kiev.
"We continue to evaluate as the situation on the ground changes the security needs of the Ukrainians... But no decisions have been made," the US official said.
US President Barack Obama's nominee for defence secretary said on Wednesday he was likely to support providing weapons.
Ashton Carter, expected to be confirmed soon as Pentagon chief, told a US Senate committee that "we need to support the Ukrainians in defending themselves".
Carter's comments will be welcomed by Kiev's pro-Western leaders, hopeful that their long-standing demands for the United States to supply weapons could be met.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said ahead of a meeting of defence ministers that the move to boost defences in eastern Europe was in response to Moscow's "aggressive actions," but nevertheless purely defensive.
The NATO ministers meeting in Brussels are expected to agree on a so-called "spearhead" force of around 5,000 troops which will be able to deploy anywhere within a "few days," Stoltenberg said.
In a move that is likely to irk Moscow, NATO will also decide on six "command and control" units in Eastern European nations to ensure that the new force could hit the ground running.
Defence secretary nominee Carter said that bolstering NATO forces in the Baltic states would be "a deterrent to any Russian kind of adventurism".
Washington has so far provided only non-lethal assistance to Ukraine, including flak jackets, medical supplies, radios and night-vision goggles, fearful of becoming embroiled in a proxy war with Russia.
But the failure of economic sanctions to force Russia to halt what the West sees as Moscow's military support for the separatists has prompted a second look at the option.
- 'UN truce call' -
Fears are now mounting of a sharp escalation in the violence after truce talks collapsed and rebels announced an ambitious mobilisation aimed at bolstering their forces to 100,000 fighters.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday joined calls for a temporary truce to allow civilians to be evacuated from the frontline town of Debaltseve.
In the rebel bastion of Donetsk shelling killed eight civilians and wounded 33 more over the past 24 hours, the insurgent-controlled city hall said.
Kiev-loyal authorities said that six civilians had been killed around Donetsk, and military spokesman Vladyslav Seleznyov said that heavy shelling killed five Ukrainian soldiers and wounded 29 around the region.
© 2015 AFP