Negotiators from Ukraine, Russia and Europe are due to hold fresh peace talks in a bid to end the deadly surge in violence in the conflict-wracked eastern Ukraine.
Tensions were running high ahead of Friday’s talks after the EU hit Moscow with more sanctions over its role in the fighting, something Russia steadfastly denies is the case.
Adding to the strain surrounding the talks, officials on Friday said 24 people, including 19 civilians, had been killed in the fighting in the past 24 hours.
The city administration of the rebel stronghold Donetsk said 23 people were also wounded in shelling across the industrial province.
The talks in Belarus’s capital, Minsk, will bring together the contact group of representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Belarus foreign ministry said.
A previous round of talks in the city lead to the ‘Minsk Protocol’ in September, a 12 point ceasefire plan that has been routinely broken since it was agreed to, with both sides blaming the other for the breaches.
Friday’s meeting is likely to be overshadowed by a deal reached by EU foreign ministers on Thursday to tighten sanctions against Russia over the conflict, which the United Nations says has left at least 5,100 people dead.
EU foreign ministers agreed that the new measures against Russia during emergency talks called after dozens died in fighting in the east Ukrainian port of Mariupol, overcoming reluctance from Greece’s radical new government.
“I cannot say I am happy that we have taken this decision because the situation on the ground is nothing to be happy about,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told a press conference in Brussels.
“But the one thing I can be happy about is that we have kept our unity.”
The United States welcomed the EU move, and warned Russia that it was mulling fresh sanctions of its own.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the EU agreement was “a further sign that the actions of the last several days and weeks are absolutely unacceptable and that there will be new consequences put in place.”
Meanwhile, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has warned that the sanctions risk turning the new Cold War atmosphere into a globally destabilising “hot” armed conflict between Moscow and the West.