Leaders in Minsk for crucial Ukraine peace talks
MINSK, Belarus (AP) The leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine negotiated into the early hours Thursday to try to find a way to halt the fighting in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 5,300 people.
The talks on ending the conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatist rebels came amid intense anxiety over the sharp spike in fighting in recent weeks, as Europe nervously awaits word on whether Washington will send lethal aid to Ukraine and as Russia's economy deteriorates under sanctions imposed by the West.
In a diplomatic blitz that began last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande visited Kiev and Moscow to speak to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin, paving the way for the talks in the Belarusian capital, Minsk.
"The entire world is waiting to see whether the situation moves toward de-escalation, weapons pullback, cease-fire, or ... spins out of control," Poroshenko said upon arriving.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov signaled some progress, saying late Wednesday that the talks were "active, better than super." But it was unclear when a decision might be announced and how soon the shooting would stop if an agreement is reached.
A top rebel official, Andrei Purgin, told Russian television that it might take a day or more for hostilities to end even if a cease-fire is called.
Details of a possible peace deal haven't been released, but key sticking points include:
Drawing a new line of division: Ukraine wants the same one that was agreed upon in September, while Russia wants a new line that reflects the rebels' significant territorial gains since then.
Withdrawing Russian troops and equipment from eastern Ukraine: Russia says it does not have any troops and military hardware in the east, a stance scoffed at by Ukraine and NATO.
Securing the Ukraine-Russia border: Ukraine wants to regain control of its border with Russia to stem the flow of Russian fighters and weapons, while Russia says that's up to the rebels who have captured some key border posts.
Giving the separatists more autonomy: Ukraine says it may offer them broad rights under Ukrainian law but Russia wants guarantees. Russia also wants Ukraine to end its financial blockade of the east.
At a news conference in Moscow, Lavrov said there was "notable progress" in the peace process, but gave no details. He said the most important goal of the talks would be to implement a cease-fire, but warned that Ukraine only could fully re-establish its control over the border with Russia if it offers a degree of autonomy to the east and lifts its economic blockade.
"To give away the Russian part of the border also would be to cut them (the rebels) off even from humanitarian help and allow them to be surrounded," Lavrov said.
Earlier Wednesday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that "quite a number of problems remain" in negotiations, including the future of eastern Ukraine, guarantees about the Ukraine-Russia border, and the prospects of a possible cease-fire, weapons pullback and prisoner exchange.
Fabius said the aim of the talks is to win an accord that works on the ground, "not just one on paper."
Germany and France rushed to mediate after a recent surge in fighting that continued Wednesday.
In the rebel-held city of Donetsk, rebel officials said five people were killed and nine wounded in a shelling attack on a bus station; An Associated Press reporter saw one body. Officials in Kiev said 19 troops were also killed and 78 wounded in fighting in Debaltseve, a hotly contested transport hub in eastern Ukraine.
Poroshenko posted a statement saying he had made an impromptu visit early Wednesday to the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk, where Kiev says 16 people were killed and 48 wounded in a rocket strike a day earlier. The city is 30 miles (50 kilometers) from the nearest front line.
"We demand an unconditional peace," Poroshenko said. "We demand a cease-fire, a withdrawal of all foreign troops, and closing of the border.... We will find a compromise within the country."
Later, in comments carried by 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 in Minsk."
Associated Press writers Peter Leonard in Donetsk, Ukraine, and Laura Mills, Vladimir Isachenkov and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.