Russian FM says Ukraine peace talks to focus on frontline
MOSCOW (AP) Russia's foreign minister said Wednesday that talks with his counterparts from Ukraine, France and Germany will focus on pulling back heavy weapons from a redrawn frontline in east Ukraine.
Sergey Lavrov, who was set to attend the talks in Berlin later Wednesday, said the withdrawal of artillery should help end a recent escalation of fighting between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed separatists.
As diplomats readied for talks, clashes were raging for control over a much fought-over checkpoint in Ukraine's Luhansk region. Ukraine's Defense Ministry said checkpoint 31 had been abandoned but that operations were underway to retake it.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's office said he would cut short a visit to the World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort of Davos to monitor developments at the checkpoint.
"Due to the complexity of the situation (in eastern Ukraine), the president has decided to shorten his visit to Switzerland and will tomorrow return to Ukraine," Poroshenko spokesman Svyatoslav Tsegolko said on his Facebook account late Tuesday.
Lavrov said that continuing violations of a truce in the east were rooted in the failure to respect a division line agreed in September in peace talks in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. Lavrov said Russian President Vladimir Putin had written a letter to his Ukrainian counterpart proposing to use the original division line to conduct the withdrawal of heavy weapons.
Lavrov said that the current frontline differs from the original division line because the rebels had made some gains. He argued that using the original line of separation would help quickly de-escalate the fighting, which killed at least six civilians on Tuesday.
"We need to fulfill the main goal: protect the civilian population," Lavrov said, and stressed that Russia had persuaded the rebels to abide by the original line of division and pull out heavy weapons.
Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Yevhen Perebyinis said in a television appearance Tuesday evening that separatist forces had seized 500 square kilometers of territory since the division line was agreed.
Perebyinis said the line of contact was being pushed back with direct assistance from Russian forces to ensure a stronger negotiating position for the separatists at future talks. Moscow denies that it provides manpower and arms to the separatists.
Lavrov emphasized that a settlement in eastern Ukraine could be achieved only if the Ukrainian government fulfills its pledge to provide broad autonomy to the east and provide security guarantees to the rebels.
Lavrov rejected Ukrainian and Western allegations that Russia was supporting the rebellion with troops and weapons, insisting that they have failed to provide facts to support the claims.
Fighting in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 4,700 people since April.
Peter Leonard contributed to this report from Kiev, Ukraine.