PARIS: France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine called Tuesday for a total ceasefire in eastern Ukraine as London announced it was sending troops to train government forces fighting pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said his country would send up to 75 military personnel to advise and train Kiev forces, but ruled out sending lethal equipment as “there needs to be a diplomatic solution” to the conflict.
Meanwhile foreign ministers from France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine met in Paris in a fresh push to salvage a crumbling peace plan for eastern Ukraine that they hammered out in the Belarussian capital Minsk 12 days ago.
Repeated violations of the ceasefire deal have shattered trust between the warring parties.
Kiev has accused the rebels of riding roughshod over the truce by seizing the strategic transport hub of Debaltseve after the deal came into effect on February 15.
“We call for the strict implementation of all provisions of the Minsk accords starting with a total ceasefire and complete withdrawal of heavy weapons,” said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said the three-hour meeting in Paris yielded no “breakthrough” as mostly technical issues were discussed.
“Unfortunately there was no political agreement on how to condemn what happened in Debaltseve,” he said.
Fighting has dropped off significantly since the attack on Debaltseve, but clashes have continued around strategic flashpoints, such as the port city of Mariupol.
Ukraine’s military said one soldier was killed and seven injured in the past 24 hours and that rebels had again tried to storm the village of Shyrokine east of Mariupol.
A rebel commander close to the village told AFP that three of his fighters were killed by Ukrainian bombardments Monday and that there was “daily fighting”.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned that further efforts by the rebels to expand their territory, including a bid to seize Mariupol “would completely change the foundation of the Minsk accords. We would be facing a new situation.”
The latest fighting came as Putin — whom Kiev and the West accuse of masterminding the conflict — said he thought the prospect of all-out war between Russia and Ukraine unlikely.
“I think that such an apocalyptic scenario is unlikely and I hope that it will never happen,” Putin told Russian state television.
“If the Minsk accords are complied with, then I am sure that the situation will gradually get back to normal.”
Ukraine has accused Russia of bolstering rebel forces around Mariupol with more tanks.
Moscow has repeatedly rejected accusations from Kiev and the West that it has sent soldiers and weapons into the former Soviet state.
If Mariupol were to fall to the pro-Russian rebels, it would remove a key obstacle to creating a land corridor stretching from Russia’s border with Ukraine to Crimea.
Germany and France brokered the Minsk truce in an effort to end fighting that has claimed at least 5,793 lives since April 2014. The peace deal was subsequently endorsed by the UN Security Council.
Until now, the main act of compliance with the Minsk agreement has been a prisoner swap on Saturday in which nearly 200 captured fighters from both sides were traded.
However continuing clashes have delayed a pull-back of heavy weapons that was due to start a week ago under the peace plan.
Kiev refuses to withdraw its big guns from the frontline until the shooting stops definitively.
The rebels have claimed several times that they have started to withdraw arms but this has not been confirmed by monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Steinmeier said a weapons pull-back would be a small step towards rebuilding trust between the two sides.
“This is completely missing at the moment and that is why the work is so difficult right now,” he said.
The ministers meeting in Paris called for the OSCE mission to be allowed access to all conflict zones to verify the removal of heavy weapons.