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Ukraine Conflict Summit Holds 'Glimmer Of Hope'

February 11, 2015

The leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France have begun a summit in Minsk aimed at ending 10 months of conflict in eastern Ukraine.

The meeting in the Belarusian capital is being attended by Petro Poroshenko, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, and Francois Hollande.

Before the four-way talks began, Poroshenko was quoted as saying they were the last chance to end the conflict.

According to the Interfax news agency, he said, 'Either there is de-escalation, a cease-fire, and a withdrawal of heavy weapons, or the situation gets out of control.'

Prospects for a breakthrough at the meeting were clouded by continued fighting and conflicting interests in a war that has killed more than 5,350 people since April and sparked the tensest standoff between Moscow and the West since the Cold War.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called the meeting a 'last-chance negotiation' to stop the conflict, while Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert said it 'offers a glimmer of hope, but no more than that.'

Seibert said it was 'uncertain whether an outcome can be reached, but despite all the uncertainty, it is worth trying in the interest of the suffering people in eastern Ukraine.'

The meeting is part of a diplomatic push initiated by Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, who took new proposals to Kyiv and Minsk last week in a desperate effort to find a solution to the conflict between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed separatists.

Few details of the plan or the proposed agenda for the Minsk talks have been released, but the leaders are likely to base their negotiations on an agreement for a cease-fire and steps toward peace that was signed in September, also in Minsk.

The September deal has been shattered by daily fighting, and hundreds of combatants and civilians have been killed in an upsurge of hostilities in the past four weeks that the United States says is the result of a 'Russian-backed offensive.'

Civilian Casualties

News reports said at least one person was killed when a shell hit a bus station early on February 11 in the center of Donetsk, one of two rebel-held provincial capitals.

Reuters news agency said the body of a man could be seen behind the wheel of a minibus after a shell fell through the roof of the station, burning the vehicle and another beside it.

Emergency services at the scene said another person had died in the hospital following the attack, and the rebels said at least five people were killed.

Ukrainian military spokesman Vladyslav Seleznyov told a briefing on February 11 that 17 armed forces servicemen and two Interior Ministry troops had been killed in shelling, rocket attacks, and clashes with rebel forces near Debaltseve, a government-held pocket astride a junction between Donetsk and Luhansk.

He said 78 others had been wounded.

Rebels have been trying to drive government troops from Debaltseve for at least a month in an effort to gain more ground, and on February 10 they said they had completely encircled the town.

The talks in Minsk also come a day after a rocket attack deep within government-held territory that Ukrainian officials said killed 16 people, many of them civilians, and wounded 48 others.

Rebels denied responsibility for the attack on the city of Kramatorsk, where rockets hit Ukraine's military headquarters for the 'antiterrorist operation,' as Kyiv calls the campaign against separatist forces.

Separatist military spokesman Eduard Basurin said Kramatorsk was beyond the range of rebel rockets.

Russian Counteraccusations

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko made an impromptu visit to eastern Ukraine early on February 11 and stopped in Kramatorsk, according to a statement on his website.

'We demand an unconditional peace,' Poroshenko said in the statement. 'We demand a cease-fire, a withdrawal of all foreign troops, and closing of the border.'

Later, in comments carried by the Interfax-Ukraine news agency, Poroshenko said he was 'ready to impose martial law across the country if we are not able to reach an agreement today in Minsk.'

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that there had been 'notable progress' in preparations for the summit between Hollande, Merkel, Poroshenko, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But Lavrov tried to turn the tables on Kyiv and Western governments that say the rebels have been on the offensive, accusing Ukrainian forces of seeking territorial gains to use as leverage at the talks.

European officials speaking on condition of anonymity have voiced concern that the rebels may be unwilling to give up ground they have seized beyond the separation lines that were drawn up under the cease-fire deal signed in Minsk in September.

Lavrov also said Ukraine must not demand control over its border with Russia in rebel-held areas as a precondition for any deal, and repeated Russian calls for direct talks between the Ukrainian government and separatist leaders.

U.S. President Barack Obama spoke separately by telephone with Putin and Poroshenko on February 10.

The White House said that in the call to Putin, Obama reiterated U.S. support for Ukraine's sovereignty, emphasized the importance of reaching a diplomatic resolution, and urged the Russian president to seize the opportunity for the Minsk talks to bring an end to the conflict.

'However, if Russia continues its aggressive actions in Ukraine, including by sending troops, weapons, and financing to support the separatists, the costs for Russia will rise,' the White House said in a statement.

The Kremlin said the two presidents noted the necessity to safeguard the rights of inhabitants of all Ukrainian regions, including the Russian-speaking ones in the east.

A Kremlin statement said Putin and Obama highlighted the need for a political solution to what it called the 'internal' conflict in Ukraine.

Russia denies sending troops or weapons to Ukraine despite what Kyiv and the West say is incontrovertible evidence of its direct military involvement.

The conflict erupted after Russia seized control over Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in March, following the flight of a Moscow-backed Ukrainian president from Kyiv after months of protests over his decision to scrap plans to sign a landmark agreement with the European Union.

Kyiv and Western governments believe Russia wants to weaken Ukraine and keep it out of NATO by maintaining a 'frozen conflict' in the east for years to come, and fear Putin could potentially support a rebel push to seize a swath of territory stretching from Donetsk to Crimea.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, Interfax, TASS, and UNIAN


Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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