Ukraine warring sides hold talks to shore up faltering truce
Ukraine's warring sides tried to shore up a faltering truce deal Wednesday after Kiev said five soldiers were killed in clashes in the war-torn east.
Ukrainian and separatist representatives met in Minsk for the first time since the two sides inked a shaky peace deal in February that dampened much of the fighting but failed to halt clashes at key hotspots.
Negotiators from Kiev and the rebels held talks with international mediators and officials from Russia — which Kiev accuses of masterminding the conflict — in the Belarussian capital to discuss the battered truce and a convoluted political roadmap for ending the conflict.
Ukraine’s representative, former president Leonid Kuchma said after the meeting that it had been a “serious step towards the political resolution” of conflict but stressed the need to ensure the shooting stops completely.
“For us security is the most important thing,” Kuchma told journalists, adding that the separatist representatives had been “constructive”.
Russia’s representative at the talks Azamat Kulmukhametov said that the encounter had given hope for a “political solution” to the fighting.
The negotiators also set up a number of expert groups to look into security and political issues that are expected to start looking into the next steps contained in the peace plan that include holding elections under Ukrainian law and eventual autonomy in the separatist zones.
The representative from the mediator group Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Heidi Tagliavini, said that the first of the groups would begin work on May 19.
Underscoring the urgency of the talks Ukraine said Wednesday that five of its soldiers were killed on the volatile frontline over the past 24 hours.
Four servicemen died when their armoured vehicle hit a landmine close to the frontline town of Avdiivka in the ravaged east, while a fifth was killed in an insurgent ambush and a further 12 wounded, Ukrainian spokesman Andriy Lysenko said.
Both Kiev and the insurgents accuse each other of continuing to violate the ceasefire deal despite claims from both that they have withdrawn heavy weapons from the frontline in accordance with the agreement.
– Shelling continues –
Kiev spokesman Lysenko said that rebels continued to bombard government positions with 152mm cannons around Mariupol, the largest remaining Ukrainian-controlled city in the conflict zone, and areas around the rebel stronghold of Donetsk.
The United Nations says that over 6,100 people have died in more than a year of fighting that has ravaged Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland and pitched Russia into a bitter standoff with the West.
The resumption of talks in Minsk — where the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany hammered out the February deal at a marathon meeting — was aimed stopping fighting that bost sides blame on each other.
Nervous European nations are closely watching the implementation of the Minsk deal that, however flawed, is still seen as the best hope of keeping a lid on the violence wracking the region.
Italy’s Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni reiterated Western backing for the European-mediated peace deal during a visit to Kiev and said that if it sticks it could help lessen tensions with Moscow.
“The Minsk accords have to be implemented fully,” Gentiloni said after meeting Poroshenko.
“That would allow us to have less negative relations with Russia.”
Europe and the United States have slapped the toughest sanctions since the Cold War on Moscow over allegations that it is behind the separatist rebellion.