Three killed as clashes grip Ukraine ahead of talks
Ukraine on Sunday reported the death of two soldiers, while pro-Russian rebels accused Kiev's forces of killing a civilian as fresh clashes preceded peace talks aimed at ending the 15-month war.
Kiev military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said two government troops were killed and six wounded in mortar fire and shelling across swathes of the eastern separatist Donetsk province over the past day.
Lysenko told reporters that “activity had especially picked up” around the industrial Sea of Azov port of Mariupol that the rebels have been trying to seize to establish an export gateway for the steel and coal mines they now control.
Insurgency commander said that shells from Kiev-held positions around the city of Donetsk had killed a civilian and wounded two others in the rebels’ main stronghold.
Separatist negotiator Denis Pushilin called the reported attack “a grave violation of the Minsk agreement” that Russia and Ukraine signed in mid-February during talks involving the leaders of Germany and France.
The four countries’ foreign ministers are due to meet in Paris on Tuesday to try to salvage the accord.
June has witnessed an upsurge in violence that has killed more than 50 people after a three-month lull.
Kiev sounded a pessimistic note about the odds of diplomats being able to reverse that trend.
“Paris must not turn into another blathering session,” Ukrainian Foreign Minster Pavlo Klimkin said.
“Either we achieve concrete results, or we demonstrate clearly that Moscow does not want to fulfil the Minsk agreements,” he said on Saturday.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko will send his personal envoy to Minsk on Tuesday to meet Pushilin and other rebels for their own round of European-mediated talks, after a similar meeting last week ended in deadlock.
“With progress like this, the chances of a complete political settlement of the conflict are in grave doubt,” Pushilin said.
The two predominantly Russian-speaking provinces of Lugansk and Donetsk have been waging a war for independence from Kiev’s new pro-Western leadership since March 2014.
The campaign has claimed the lives of around 6,500 people and driven an estimated 1.3 million from their homes.
It has also exposed the Kremlin to Western charges — repeatedly denied by President Vladimir Putin — of trying to inflict permanent damage on Russia’s ex-Soviet neighbour in retribution for its sudden shift to the West.
– Competing vision of truce –
Kiev and the insurgents still fail see eye to eye on such basic issues as where exactly where the Minsk truce line keeping apart the two sides runs.
The separatists also want to hold quick local elections that would cement their semi-autonomous status within a unified Ukraine.
But Kiev insists that no such vote can be taken until Ukraine secures full control of the Russian border and “all foreign armed formations” leave the war zone by the end of the year.
The disputes culminated in a disastrous meeting last month in which the Russian envoy left the room early and the chief Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe mediator quickly submitted her resignation.
The OSCE’s Heidi Tagliavini attended last week’s negotiations, but is set to be replaced by the end of the month.
Kiev is represented by former president Leonid Kuchma while Russia has appointed a new Kremlin envoy — veteran diplomat Azamat Kulmukhametov, who Ukrainian media believe has adopted a much tougher approach to the West.