Merkel, Hollande take Ukraine peace plan to Putin
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande head to Moscow on Friday to secure President Vladimir Putin's support for a peace plan to end surging separatist violence in the east.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said talks with Merkel and Hollande late Thursday raised "hope for a ceasefire" after the duo jetted in to Kiev in the biggest push yet to resolve the ten-month conflict.
The two European leaders are expected in Moscow later Friday for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin -- who the West sees as the mastermind behind Ukraine's pro-Moscow rebellion -- in hopes he will sign up to the peace plan.
As impetus grows for a peaceful resolution to the conflict that has killed over 5,300 people, rebel and Ukranian forces on the ground agreed a ceasefire for several hours Friday around the battleground town of Debaltseve to allow civilians to leave, both sides said.
- Frantic diplomacy -
An AFP journalist close to government-held Debaltseve reported that shelling had died down after days of fierce fighting. Rebels said the truce would last from 0800 GMT to 1500 GMT.
Frantic high-level diplomacy to end the worst East-West crisis since the end of the Cold War came as US Secretary of State John Kerry also visited Kiev on Thursday as Washington continues to mull whether to supply arms to the Ukraine army.
"President Putin can make the choices that could end this war," Kerry said, voicing support for the "helpful" Franco-German plan to be put to the Russian leader on Friday.
Hundreds of civilians have been killed over recent weeks in east Ukraine as fighting spiralled after insurgents tore up an earlier truce and pushed into government-held territory.
Before setting off on the surprise diplomatic push, Hollande said in Paris that he and Merkel would "propose a new solution to the conflict based on the territorial integrity of Ukraine".
Few details have emerged of what exactly the new peace proposal contains and there is much disquiet in Kiev after the collapse of the previous peace deal.
The plan appears to have come from a back-and-forth between Putin, Merkel and Hollande and, according to a report in German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, would give separatists greater autonomy and territory they have captured in recent days, although German officials have denied this.
Despite the diplomatic momentum behind the new plan, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk insisted Moscow should just stick to the widely flouted truce accord agreed in Minsk last September.
"To have a new deal, not to execute the previous one, seems to me a trap," Yatsenyuk told journalists.
"We urge Russia to implement and execute what was agreed, signed personally by president Putin."
Yatsenyuk warned that the Russian strongman could be seeking to "split the unity between the EU and the US" at a time when the White House is edging closer to starting weapons deliveries to Ukraine.
- Obama arms decision 'soon' -
After his meetings in Kiev, Kerry said that US President Barack Obama would decide "soon" on whether to arm Ukraine, but stressed his preference for a diplomatic solution.
Russia, accused by the West of arming the separatists, warned that any US move to send weapons to Ukraine would cause "colossal damage" to ties, foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said.
Kerry is to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at a security conference in Munich on Saturday, ahead of Obama holding a "very important" meeting with Merkel at the White House on Monday, Kerry said.
As Kiev struggles to battle the insurgency -- that it says is being fought by regular Russian troops -- the West has a lot of leverage to bring Ukraine to the table, with the International Monetary Fund still negotiating a new multi-billion dollar bailout to rescue its economy.
Ukraine's military said Friday that one soldier was killed and 25 wounded in fighting over the past 24 hours.
The conflict in Ukraine has claimed more than 5,350 lives since April, including some 220 in just the past three weeks, according to the United Nations.
© 2015 AFP