Peace talks ‘to focus on frontline’

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Published: Wednesday 21st January 2015 by The News Editor

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Moscow has proposed restoring a previously agreed line of division in eastern Ukraine to end an escalation of fighting, and has persuaded the rebels to pull back heavy weapons behind it, Russia’s foreign minister has said.

Sergey Lavrov, who was set to meet with Ukrainian, French and German counterparts in Berlin later in the day, said the withdrawal of artillery should help end a recent escalation of fighting between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed separatists and save civilian lives.

The now-destroyed airport at the main rebel stronghold of Donetsk has been the flashpoint of fighting for months because of its strategic location and symbolic value for both sides. Fighting in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 4,700 people since April.

As diplomats readied for talks, clashes also were raging for control over a much fought-over checkpoint in Ukraine’s Luhansk region. Ukraine’s Defence Ministry said checkpoint 31 had been abandoned but that operations were under way 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,” Mr Poroshenko’s spokesman Svyatoslav Tsegolko said on his Facebook account.

Mr 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.

He added that 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.

Mr 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 yesterday.

“We need to fulfill the main goal: protect the civilian population,” Mr Lavrov said, and stressed that Russia had persuaded the rebels to abide by the original line of division and use it as a mark to pull out heavy weapons.

He said nothing, however, about the rebels giving up their territorial gains.

Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Yevhen Perebyinis said yesterday that separatist forces had seized 190 square miles (500 square kilometres) of territory since the division line was agreed.

Mr 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 has denied Ukrainian and Western claims that it provides manpower and arms to the separatists, but acknowledged that some Russians have joined the insurgents.

Mr Lavrov again argued that the accusations have not been confirmed by evidence. While Ukrainian government forces and the rebels use similar Soviet-designed weapons, the sheer number of sophisticated heavy weaponry in the insurgents’ hands has been widely seen in the West as irrefutable evidence of Russia’s direct involvement.

Mr Lavrov emphasised that a lasting settlement in eastern Ukraine could be achieved only if the Ukrainian government fulfils its pledge to provide broad autonomy to the east and provide security guarantees to the rebels.

He said that monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), who have been present at two checkpoints on the Russian-Ukrainian border, could expand their monitoring to other sections of the border if they agree on that with the rebels.

Published: Wednesday 21st January 2015 by The News Editor

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