European leaders to meet in Minsk in Ukraine peace bid

Heads of Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia to meet in Belarus as US denies it is at odds with Europe over crisis.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and leaders of Russia, France and Germany have agreed to hold talks in Minsk, the Belarus capital, on Wednesday in the hope of reaching a “swift and unconditional ceasefire,” a statement on Poroshenko’s website has said.

The statement said progress had been made during a phone call between the Ukrainian president, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande earlier on Sunday.

“The participants achieved progress in discussing a range of measures for implementation of the Minsk agreements,” Poroshenko said, referring to a ceasefire plan which took effect last September but was never fully observed and eventually collapsed.

Poroshenko said: “They [the leaders] also expect that their efforts during the Minsk meeting will lead to a swift and unconditional two-sided ceasefire.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Sunday he expected “important decisions” to be made at the Minsk talks.

Prior to the telephone call, Hollande and Merkel warned that the peace drive was a “last chance” to stop all-out war. 

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Al Jazeera’s Rory Challands, reporting from Moscow, where Putin, Hollande Merkel had held initial talks on Friday, said that the talks in Minsk are significant with politicians displaying cautious optimism about them. 

On Monday, foreign ministry officials from the four countries will hold preparatory talks in Berlin while Merkel briefs US President Barack Obama on the latest peace initiative during a visit to the White House.

On Tuesday, mediators from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe are expected to meet with Ukrainian and Russian representatives as well as the rebels, Ukraine’s presidency said.

A previous peace deal agreed in Minsk in September has been largely ignored, with fighting escalating in recent weeks as the rebels push further into government-held territory.

Challands said that the last Minsk deal would form the basis for any agreement to be made but that there would also be other considerations, including a possible demilitarised zone and a UN peacekeeping force.

Challands said that the last Minsk deal would form the basis for any agreement to be made but that there would also be other considerations, including a possible demilitarised zone and a UN peacekeeping force.

“What western leader will be looking from Russia, is for the Kremlin, for Putin to bring influence to bare in the seperitists themselves,” said Challands.

“Because you can have as many high level agreements as you want but if the seperatists on the ground don’t stop fighting the it means nothing. Russia and the seperatist will be hoping that the Ukrainian army pulls back,” he said.

US and EU disagreement 

Earlier, US Secretary of State John Kerry denied the US and Europe were at odds over the conflict, despite a debate over whether to arm the government in Kiev.

Kerry said the US supported efforts by France and Germany to produce a new plan to end the conflict raging in east Ukraine.

“There is no division, there is no split,” Kerry said. “I keep hearing people trying to create one. We are united, we are working closely together.”

Adding to the tension surrounding the discussions, Britain’s Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Putin was “acting like some kind of 20th century tyrant”.

“Ukrainians can’t beat the Russian army, that’s not a practical proposition. There has to be a political solution,” Hammond told the UK’s Sky News.

“This man [Putin] has sent troops across an international border and occupied another country’s territory in the 21st century acting like some kind of 20th century tyrant.”

Passports brandished

At a gathering of world leaders in Germany on Saturday, Poroshenko brandished passports and military ID cards he said were seized from Russian soldiers deep inside his territory, offering what he said was “evidence” of Russia’s presence in the country.

“Today a former strategic partner is waging a hidden war against a sovereign state,” he said at the Munich Security Conference.

Fresh fighting in the former Soviet republic claimed eight civilian lives overnight, separatist authorities said, as Ukraine accused rebels of massing heavy weapons ahead of a new offensive.

Merkel set the conference agenda in Munich as she championed the peace plan that she and Hollande took to Putin in Moscow late on Friday.

“It is uncertain whether it will lead to success, but from my point of view and that of the French president it is definitely worth trying,” she said.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told national television the fate of the joint-European push would be known in “two or three days”.

US Vice President Joe Biden injected a note of caution, saying: “Given Russia’s recent history, we need to judge its deeds not its words. Don’t tell us, show us, President Putin!”

A senior US State Department official said the plan was based on a widely flouted ceasefire deal reached in Minsk in September, but admitted the initiative was still “very much in flux and evolution”.

Hollande told French TV station France 2 that the proposal includes the creation of a 50km to 70km demilitarised zone based around the current frontline.

But this idea appeared to face opposition from the Ukrainian president, who has lost territory to the rebels since the Minsk deal.

“There is only one line, and that’s the line from the Minsk agreement,” Poroshenko said.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies