Ukraine truce hangs in balance after 'difficult' talks
The latest push for peace in Ukraine appeared moribund on Thursday after initial talks failed to agree when the warring sides should meet again to try to end an eight-month pro-Russian revolt.
Negotiations mediated by European and Russian envoys in the Belarussian capital Minsk broke up after more than five hours on Wednesday with the separatists reporting progress on only one of four contentious points.
That scuppered a plan for both sides to gather again on Friday in a bid to sign a comprehensive agreement reinforcing a September 5 truce deal that was followed by 1,300 more deaths.
Donetsk separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko told reporters on Thursday that the "very difficult" process would now involve videoconference consultations that should stretch into the weekend.
Both he and security sources in Kiev said that a deal on the terms of a prisoner swap involving 150 Ukrainian soldiers and 225 guerrillas was the only tangible achievement of Wednesday's talks.
State security sources in Kiev said this would leave the separatists in eastern Ukraine holding about 500 government soldiers.
Ukraine would be ready to exchange them for several dozen rebels still languishing in the country's jails.
- Contrasting visions -
Sharply contrasting visions of Ukraine's place in Europe and its system of government are blocking a solution to the protracted war.
In the wake of February's ouster of an unpopular Moscow-backed president, two pro-Russian eastern regions -- Donetsk and Lugansk -- rose up in protest at Kiev's shift towards Europe.
The separatist commanders have since declared their own republics and will settle for no less than Ukraine becoming a loose federation in which they manage most of their own affairs.
This option is backed firmly by Russia but rejected by Ukrainian nationalists who make up an important part of President Petro Poroshenko's government.
Ukraine has remained tightly centralised since independence and is only now considering easing its hold over the country's regions in order to stem public resentment over the relative prosperity enjoyed in Kiev.
Such problems have undermined peace accords reached in Minsk in September that Poroshenko was forced into after the rebels mounted a surprisingly effective counteroffensive.
NATO believes the rebel surge was backed by crack Russian forces and tanks, witnessed by reporters on the ground at the time.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin denies sending in his army and calls soldiers who crossed into the war zone volunteers who were "answering the call of the heart".
The overall toll in the Ukraine conflict -- Europe's bloodiest since the Balkan wars of the 1990s -- now stands at more than 4,700.
But UN officials fear the true number may be much higher because the militias have been hiding their losses and denying outsiders access to their burial sites.
- Money at stake -
The biggest immediate issue for the rebels is to make sure that Kiev resumes social welfare payments it suspended last month out of fear that they were being used to fund the revolt.
Russia's Kiev ambassador Mikhail Zurabov -- Moscow's envoy at the talks who defends the insurgents' stance -- said "economic" problems had been one of the four main points on the agenda.
But Ukraine appeared unwilling to budge.
A source close to the Kiev delegation said the rebels pressed demands on Wednesday that went far outside the scope of the original Minsk deal.
"If we continue these consultations, it should only be in order to sign the Minsk (deal) and to develop them further -- and not to revise them, which is what the Donetsk and Lugansk representatives tried to do," the source told the Interfax-Ukraine news agency.
- Ukraine looks to NATO -
Adding to the tensions was the Ukrainian parliament's decision this week to officially drop the neutrality the country adopted under Russian pressure in 2010.
The shift in Kiev's diplomatic allegiance was in line with Poroshenko's vow to put Ukraine under Western military protection in the face of Russian threats.
Ukraine sought NATO membership in the early post-Soviet era but was never viewed as a serious candidate.
The February change of regime in Kiev upset Putin's plans to get Ukraine to join a new bloc that Moscow hopes will counterbalance NATO and the European Union.
Moscow had also set Kiev's exclusion from all military unions as a condition for any Minsk deal.
© 2014 AFP