Deadly clashes rock Ukraine ahead of high-stakes peace talks

21st January 2015, Comments 0 comments

Heavy fighting raged between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebels in the country's war-torn east Wednesday, killing at least five more civilians ahead of high-stakes peace talks in Berlin.

Explosions shook the battered city of Donetsk after days of fighting left an already shaky September truce in tatters.

Ukraine on Tuesday alleged that Russian regular forces attacked its troops in the Lugansk region northeast of Donetsk, the first such claim since the September ceasefire. Moscow denies sending troops into Ukraine or repeated accusations by Kiev and Western governments that it is also arming and training local rebels.

In response to the "worsening situation",Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was cutting short a visit to Davos for the World Economic Forum and returning to Kiev, his spokesman Svyatoslav Tsegolko said.

Concerns mounted over the fate of civilians in the nine-month-old conflict that has already killed more than 4,800 people, according to the United Nations.

Pro-Moscow rebels have been accused of launching attacks from residential areas, drawing counter-fire from Ukrainian forces.

"Shelling continued during the night in Donetsk," Donetsk's city administration said in a statement.

"Five civilians were killed. Twenty nine received wounds of varying severity. As of 9:30 am, military actions in the city continue. The sound of heavy weapons can be heard everywhere."

The foreign ministers of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France were due to meet later Wednesday in Berlin in a bid to revive peace talks. The UN Security Council was also due to discuss the crisis on Wednesday, with Russia under heavy Western sanctions over its alleged actions in Ukraine.

- No 'blah-blah-blah' -

Moscow and Kiev are trading blame for the recent wave of fighting that has centred around Donetsk's ruined airport.

The flare-up coincided with attempts by both sides to establish a demarcation line between their armies that would define the extent of rebel-controlled territory.

Moscow insists that the separatists should be given the ruined airport near the rebels' main stronghold where almost surrounded Ukrainian force have been holding on for months. Kiev denies ever accepting such terms.

The Russian defence ministry called claims by Kiev earlier this week that 700 new Russian soldiers had crossed the border into Ukraine's separatist east "absolute nonsense".

But in an interview with a group of Western reporters, Poroshenko cast doubt over Russian President Vladimir Putin's good faith, although he said he still remained hopeful that a peace deal could be reached.

"It seems to me that the Ukrainian question is very emotional for" Putin, The Wall Street Journal reported Poroshenko as saying. "If you ask if I trust him, my answer would be no."

He added that "to have a complete de-escalation, we don't need any blah-blah-blah. We need just to withdraw Russian troops."

The crisis has put relations between Russia and the West under the greatest strain since the Cold War, while Ukraine's severe financial crisis is further complicating the situation, with Kiev requiring billions of dollars in help from world lenders.

Two top Western diplomats in Kiev said Tuesday they believed the pro-Russian militias had made significant progress on the ground in recent days.

One of them, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the rebel offensive appeared to be aimed at undermining European peace efforts in order to win more ground before a final partition agreement is reached.

© 2015 AFP

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