Intense fighting in Ukraine casts a shadow over four-way peace talks

February 11, 2015 5:05 pm

Intense fighting in , including a rocket strike on Kiev’s
military headquarters in the east, have killed at least 23 people on the
eve of a four-way peace summit.
As diplomats scrambled to
finalise a deal to end the 10-month war, pro- rebels sought to
encircle railway hub Debaltseve and Ukrainian forces launched a
counter-offensive around the strategic port of Mariupol.
Ukrainian
President Petro Poroshenko said rockets for the first time hit the
military’s command centre in Kramatorsk, the government’s administrative
capital in the region, well behind the frontlines and far from rebel
positions.

The strikes also hit residential areas around the city, killing 15 people, officials said.
Another
63 people, including five children and 32 soldiers, were wounded in the
attack, security chief Oleksandr Durchynov said in a statement.
Officials initially said the rockets were hi-tech Tornado missiles, but later said they were Soviet-era Smerch rockets.

An elderly woman cries inside her burned apartment after artillery shelling in Donetsk, Ukraine, on Monday. Photo / Getty
Kiev and the West accuse Moscow of supplying and training the heavily armed separatists, but Russia denies the claims.
Rebels
say their weapons have been captured from Ukrainian forces, although
Kiev has cited numerous cases of the insurgents using advanced weapons
that are only available from Russian arsenals.
“The shelling is
with Vladimir Putin’s compliments, who else could have done this?”
shouted a Kramatorsk resident as he walked past an unexploded rocket.

Debaltseve ‘encircled’

Another
seven Ukrainian soldiers and eight civilians were killed in fighting
over the last 24 hours, Kiev officials and rebels said, including in
Debaltseve, which the insurgents claim to have surrounded.
Ukrainian
forces took control of three villages east of Mariupol, around 90km
south of the rebel stronghold Donetsk, and fierce fighting raged for
control of two more, senior interior ministry advisor Zoryan Shkiryak
said.

A child waits on a bus to leave Debaltseve, Ukraine, where a separatist offensive is aiming to claw territory from Kiev. Photo / AP
A child waits on a bus to leave Debaltseve,
Ukraine, where a separatist offensive is aiming to claw territory from
Kiev. Photo / AP
The violence came as rebels, diplomats and mediators
gathered in the Belarussian capital Minsk to bridge gaps on a possible
peace deal, which the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany
hope to sign at a summit in the city on Wednesday.
Rebel
negotiator Denis Pushilin told the separatists’ agency that he was
heading to Minsk for talks with mediators from the Organization for
Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as well as Russian and
Ukrainian representatives.
French President Francois Hollande and
German Chancellor Angela Merkel have been conducting frantic diplomacy,
taking the “last chance” deal to Poroshenko and Russian leader Putin.
Hollande said on Tuesday that he was going to Minsk with the “strong will” to achieve a peace deal.
A
source close to German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told
AFP he had called his Russian and Ukrainian counterparts on Tuesday
(Wednesday NZT) to “seek compromise on difficult questions”.
Merkel
was in Washington Monday for lengthy talks with US President Barack
Obama on the initiative to defuse fighting that has killed at least
5,300 people since April.

No arms, yet

Obama agreed to hold off on sending arms to Ukraine until truce efforts have played out.
Proponents of sending arms to Ukrainian forces argue that Kiev needs the weapons to counter advanced Russian hardware.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Francois Hollande met in Moscow last week to discuss peace in Ukraine. Photo / Getty
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian
President Vladimir Putin and French President Francois Hollande met in
Moscow last week to discuss peace in Ukraine. Photo / Getty
But Merkel has opposed the move amid fears that the Ukraine conflict could become a proxy war between Russia and the West.
Some
in the West however say hi-tech weapons could at least make the
conflict more costly and painful for Russia, already reeling under the
impact of US and EU sanctions as well as low oil prices.
Foreign
Secretary Philip Hammond told parliament on Tuesday that Britain was not
planning on sending “lethal aid” to Ukraine, “but we reserve the right
to keep this position under review”.
Ahead of the Minsk summit, the European Union decided to hold off implementing new sanctions against Russia.
Putin has warned that a “number of points” still needed to be agreed before the Minsk meeting can take place.
The
new plan is based largely on an ignored peace deal agreed in September
in Minsk, but a key sticking point is believed to be whether it will
extend rebel control over territory seized in recent weeks.
The
new territory amounts to around 500sq km, and Kiev is adamant the
demarcation line agreed in September should not be shifted. Hollande has
said the proposal includes the creation of a 50-70km demilitarised zone
around the current frontline.
Other contentious issues include
the degree of future autonomy in the east and Kiev’s insistence on
retaking control of the roughly 400km border between separatist Ukraine
and Russia.
“Eight days ago, they (Ukraine and Russia) weren’t
talking to each other. Now, they’ve sat at the same table,” a French
diplomatic source said, describing negotiations as “very complicated”.

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