Leaders to discuss 'last chance' Ukraine peace bid
French, German and Ukrainian leaders are to discuss a last-ditch peace bid for east Ukraine with Vladimir Putin on Sunday, after the US called for "deeds" from the Russian leader accused of masterminding the conflict.
President Francois Hollande and Chancellor Angela Merkel were to join Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Putin for a phone call, after Western leaders warned the peace drive may be a "last chance" to stop all-out war.
In a dramatic gesture at a gathering of world leaders in Germany on Saturday, Poroshenko brandished passports and military ID cards he said were seized from Russian soldiers deep inside his territory, offering what he said was "evidence" of Russia's presence in the country.
"Today a former strategic partner is waging a hidden war against a sovereign state," he said at the Munich Security Conference.
Fresh fighting in the former Soviet republic claimed eight civilian lives, separatist authorities said, with Kiev accusing the rebels of massing heavy weapons ahead of a new offensive.
Merkel set the conference agenda in Munich as she championed the peace plan that she and Hollande took to Putin in Moscow late Friday.
"It is uncertain whether it will lead to success, but from my point of view and that of the French president it is definitely worth trying," she said.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told national television the fate of the joint European push would be known in "two or three days".
US Vice President Joe Biden injected a note of caution: "Given Russia's recent history, we need to judge its deeds not its words. Don't tell us, show us, President Putin!"
- 'Additional' US assistance -
A senior State Department official said the plan is based on a widely flouted ceasefire deal reached in Minsk in September, but admitted the initiative was still "very much in flux and evolution".
Hollande told French TV station France 2 that the proposal includes the creation of a 50- to 70-kilometre (31- to 43-mile) demilitarised zone based around the current frontline.
But this idea appeared to face opposition from the Ukrainian president, who has lost territory to the rebels since the Minsk deal. "There is only one line, and that's the line from the Minsk agreement," Poroshenko said.
Hollande said the stakes could not be higher, warning that the renewed peace plan was "one of the last chances" to halt the 10-month-old conflict.
Momentum has built in Washington for giving Kiev hi-tech military equipment, but Merkel insisted such a step would only make matters worse.
"I can't conceive of a situation where better armaments for the Ukrainian army would so impress President Putin that he believes he will militarily lose," she said.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said the US, which has so far provided non-lethal military equipment such as armoured vests and helmets, was weighing "additional" assistance to Ukraine, but stopped short of saying Washington would send arms.
- 'There's no war' -
Putin, meanwhile, said Russia is not at war and does not want war with anyone, but lashed out at Western sanctions imposed as the Ukraine crisis has deepened.
"There's no war, thank God. But there is definitely an attempt to curb our development," Putin said in a TASS news agency report.
Far from the diplomatic exchanges, fighting raged in eastern Ukraine, where some 5,400 people have been killed since the start of the conflict in April.
Rebels are "accumulating forces for further offensive operations on Debaltseve and Mariupol," the Ukrainian government said.
It said the separatists were sending fresh tanks, armoured personnel carriers and multiple rocket launcher systems to the Debaltseve region and Granitne, around 35 kilometres (20 miles) northeast of the city of Mariupol.
The town of Debaltseve -- mid-way between rebel centres Donetsk and Lugansk -- has been the focus of fierce fighting for over a week as insurgents try to encircle government troops holding the strategic railway hub.
© 2015 AFP