Merkel leads Ukraine peace drive
Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday was to lead a fresh round of hectic diplomatic efforts to end the brutal conflict in Ukraine.
Merkel is due to meet US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, with Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko and US Vice-President Joe Biden also in the mix.
The focus as leaders attend the Munich Security Conference is on a new blueprint agreed in overnight talks in Moscow between President Vladimir Putin, Merkel and French leader Francois Hollande.
Time is pressing to find a solution to the crisis before it turns into a major East-West confrontation, as recent gains by the Russian-backed and increasingly well-armed rebels drive calls for the West to supply weapons to Kiev.
Germany flat out opposes that option for fear it will only make matters worse, bringing about a dangerous proxy war, but the idea has many supporters in Washington.
They argue that western sanctions have failed to get Russia to reverse course in a conflict which has now cost some 5,400 lives so the time has come to take the gloves off.
No details were released on the Moscow talks Friday, but the new plan is likely to be based on the failed September Minsk ceasefire and peace accords which the West says Moscow never lived up to.
"Work is under way to prepare the text of a possible joint document to implement the Minsk agreements," Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, describing the Moscow talks as "substantial and constructive."
Putin, Merkel and Hollande, who made no public comment after the meeting, are to discuss the plan again with Poroshenko by telephone on Sunday.
- Merkel downplays expectations -
Ahead of the Moscow talks, Merkel played down expectations of any early breakthrough but insisted: "We have to put an end to this bloodbath and implement the Minsk agreements."
For his part, Hollande cautioned that time was short for a diplomatic solution, with the conflict becoming more dangerous the longer it goes on.
Merkel and Hollande first flew to Kiev on Thursday for discussions with Poroshenko, and Kerry also visited the Ukrainian capital.
On Friday in Brussels, Biden said Ukraine was battling for its very survival.
"We, the US and Europe as a whole, have to stand with Ukraine at this moment," Biden said. "Russia cannot be allowed to redraw the map of Europe," he added, calling on Putin to live up to his stated desire for peace.
The West and Kiev accuse Russia of sending troops and sophisticated weapons across the border to help the rebels but Moscow rejects the charge and says it is not a party to the conflict.
The German press broadly welcomed the latest initiative Saturday, saying time was running out to avoid a disaster for Europe which has known more than its fair share of war.
"For Germany and for the rest of Europe, this war has brought a bitter lesson: The peaceful order in Europe has reached its limits," said Munich daily the Sueddeutsche Zeitung.
News site Spiegel Online said that with Merkel expected to meet US President Barack Obama on Monday, "this weekend will be crucial for how the crisis in eastern Ukraine and relations with Russia develop."
"If Merkel fails in Moscow, the US will want to punish Putin," said Spiegel Online.
In a possibly hopeful sign on the ground, rebel and Ukrainian forces agreed a ceasefire for several hours Friday around the battleground town of Debaltseve to allow civilians to leave.
The sound of sporadic shelling could be heard in the distance but mortar bombardments in the town itself had halted after days of fierce fighting.
Hundreds of civilians have been killed over recent weeks in east Ukraine as the pro-Russian rebels dumped the Minsk accords completely and pushed into government-held territory.
© 2015 AFP