MINSK: A tense peace summit in Minsk between the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France dragged on into Thursday as they tussled over a plan to end 10 months of fighting in Ukraine.
A grim-looking Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko shook hands with Russian leader Vladimir Putin at the start of the marathon talks as the two arch-foes came face-to-face for the first time since October.
The crunch four-way meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande in the Belarussian capital was the climax of a frantic European diplomatic drive aimed at stopping the worst East-West crisis since the end of the Cold War from escalating.
Underscoring the urgency, rebels said that one civilian was killed when a hospital in their bastion Donetsk was shelled as the leaders met, bringing the number of those reported killed in the hours before the make-or-break talks to nearly 50.
“Today the peace process for Ukraine is all about Minsk and I hope that the meeting will fulfil our best expectations,” Poroshenko told host Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko ahead of the talks.
By 3am local time (0000 GMT) the tortuous negotiations had entered their their eight hour and the four leaders remained shut in an ornate meeting room in Minsk’s opulent presidential palace without their advisors.
Earlier, a senior Ukrainian diplomatic source told AFP that the talks were making “progress” but also proving “very hard”.
Another source close to the discussions had said the leaders hoped to sign a joint statement calling for the fulfilment of an earlier failed peace plan signed by Kiev and the rebels in September.
Separatist negotiators meanwhile met elsewhere in Minsk to agree how to implement previous truce deals with representatives from Kiev, Moscow and mediators from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
The most pressing element is the need to agree an immediate ceasefire between the two sides that would see an end to the surging fighting that has killed hundreds of civilians in recent weeks.
A key sticking point is whether a new deal will extend rebel control over 500 square kilometres (200 square miles) of territory seized over the past month.
Western diplomats warn that the sides also remain deadlocked over other key issues including how Ukraine can shore up a rebel-controlled 400 kilometres (250 miles) stretch of its border with Russia, across which it accuses Moscow of pouring arms and fighters.
Moscow is also pushing for the separatist-held territories to be granted a large degree of autonomy, but Kiev only says that it is willing to decentralise some powers.
Poroshenko warned before the talks that he would introduce martial law throughout the country if they fail to stop a war that has already claimed more than 5,300 lives.
Martial law would mark a significant escalation of the crisis, freeing up military resources for the fight in the east but also likely leading to the severance of foreign investment for cash-strapped Ukraine, including a vital IMF loan.
At the meeting in the marble-floored palace the European leaders and pro-Western Poroshenko put on a united front as they smiled for cameras and chatted amiably.
Poroshenko had said that he, Hollande and Merkel would speak “with one voice” to Putin, whom they accuse of backing the rebellion.
Poroshenko is scheduled to brief a European Union summit in Brussels on Thursday.
European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the talks would be a “turning point for good or bad”, while Russia — accused by the West of fomenting the war by pouring troops and weapons across the border — voiced optimism.
Germany said the meeting, the most intensive international push for an end to the bloodshed in the east of the former Soviet state, offered a “glimmer of hope, nothing more”.
If the Minsk talks fail, US President Barack Obama has warned that Washington may decide to start providing lethal weapons to Ukraine, a step many European leaders oppose for fear of getting drawn into open conflict with Russia.
The bloodletting in eastern Ukraine has been relentless in recent weeks as the rebels have pushed deeper into government-held territory and Kiev forces have counter-attacked.
At least 49 people were reported killed in the last 24 hours, including 16 in a devastating rocket attack on Kramatorsk, the Ukrainian government’s eastern military headquarters and administrative hub.