Leaders start Ukraine peace summit as bloodshed mounts
The leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France on Wednesday began a crunch peace summit in Minsk aimed at ending 10 months of fighting in Ukraine where violence claimed dozens more lives.
A grave-looking Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko shook hands briefly with Russian leader Vladimir Putin as the two arch-foes came face-to-face for the first time since October to try to thrash out a peace plan.
The four-way meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande is the climax of a frantic European diplomatic drive aimed at stopping the worst East-West crisis since the end of the Cold War from escalating.
Underscoring the urgency of the meeting, some 50 people were reported killed in fighting around east Ukraine in the run-up to the make-or-break summit being held in the grandiose presidential palace in the Belarussian capital.
"Today the peace process for Ukraine is all about Minsk and I hope that the meeting will fulfil our best expectations," Poroshenko told Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko, who is hosting the talks.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the talks would be a "turning point for good or bad", while Russia -- accused by the West of fomenting the war by pouring troops and weapons across the border -- voiced optimism.
Germany said the meeting, the most intensive international push for an end to the bloodshed in the east of the former Soviet state, offered a "glimmer of hope, nothing more".
"Experts are working, there is noticeable progress," Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow, although he signalled there would be no flexibility on Ukraine's demand that it be given back control of its border with Russia.
Western diplomats warn that the sides remain deadlocked over key issues and Poroshenko said he could introduce martial law throughout the country if the Minsk talks fail to stop the war that has already claimed more than 5,300 lives.
Martial law would mark a grave escalation of the crisis, freeing up military resources for the fight in the east but also likely leading to the cutting off of foreign investment for cash-strapped Ukraine, including a vital IMF loan.
- 'One voice' -
The pro-Western leader said he, Hollande and Merkel would speak "with one voice" to Putin, whom they accuse of backing the rebellion.
"The key position is that we need an unconditional ceasefire," he said.
US President Barack Obama has warned Putin that Russia -- already subject to punishing EU and US sanctions -- would be made to pay if the talks fail.
The bloodletting has been relentless in recent weeks as the rebels have pushed deeper into government-held territory and Kiev forces have counter-attacked.
At least 48 people were reported killed in the last 24 hours, including 16 in a devastating rocket attack on Kramatorsk, the Ukrainian government's eastern military headquarters and administrative hub.
"I couldn't care less whether we're under the Ukrainians or the separatists. I just want peace," said Irina, a war-weary doctor in rebel-controlled eastern Ukraine.
Poroshenko is scheduled to brief a European Union summit in Brussels on Thursday.
If the talks fail, Obama has warned that Washington may decide to start providing lethal weapons to Ukraine, a step many European leaders oppose for fear of getting drawn into open conflict with Russia.
On Tuesday, Obama spoke to Putin by phone and sought to pressure him to rein in the rebels, who have close political links to Moscow, and embrace the chance for peace.
"If Russia continues its aggressive actions in Ukraine, including by sending troops, weapons, and financing to support the separatists, the costs for Russia will rise," the White House said.
- New proposals, old plans -
The plan to be discussed in Minsk is based largely on a repeatedly broken peace deal between Kiev and the rebels in September.
A key sticking point is whether a new deal will extend rebel control over 500-square kilometres (200-square miles) of territory seized over the past month.
As the leaders converged on Minsk, fighting raged on the ground with both sides trying to strengthen their hand at the negotiating table.
Insurgents have been battling for weeks to take the rail hub of Debaltseve, while Ukrainian forces on Tuesday captured ground around the port city of Mariupol.
Kiev is desperate to get Putin -- who has watched Western sanctions and low oil prices batter the Russian economy -- to put his signature on a deal.
But the former KGB spy has consistently told Ukraine's government it needs to reach an agreement with the rebels, not with him, denying Moscow is providing military help to the insurgents.
Moscow is pushing for the separatist-held territories to be granted a large degree of autonomy, while Ukraine is demanding it get control back over some 400 kilometres (250 miles) of its border with Russia.
© 2015 AFP