MINSK: Peace talks aimed at halting rising bloodshed in eastern Ukraine ended in failure Saturday (Sunday in Manila), with Kiev’s envoy saying pro-Russian separatists wrecked a deal by refusing to discuss an immediate ceasefire.
The delayed talks in Minsk were “thwarted” after top rebel leaders stayed away and their negotiators also refused to discuss withdrawing heavy weapons, former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma told Interfax Ukraine news agency.
Kuchma also accused the insurgents’ representatives of putting forward “ultimatums” at the four-hour talks in the Belarussian capital without giving any more details.
The negotiator for the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic, Denis Pushilin, however, blamed Kiev for causing the collapse of the talks and said insurgent leaders would only agree a deal if Kiev’s forces halt fire first.
Pushilin said the rebels also insisted the demarcation line include territory taken since the previous line was agreed in September, said by analysts to be around 500 square kilometers (200 square miles).
Mediators from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had hoped to thrash out a “binding” truce to revive a shattered peace plan despite Kiev suffering one of its bloodiest days yet in the nine-month conflict with 15 Ukrainian troops killed.
The OSCE as well as Russian officials attended the talks in Minsk after a nominal September ceasefire collapsed under the latest wave of violence.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel talked to each other by phone on Saturday, urging the warring factions to agree a truce in fighting that has left at least 5,100 people dead.
The insurgents last week pulled out of peace talks and announced the start of an offensive designed to expand their control over a much broader swathe of the industrial southeast.
They said Friday they would push their offensive “until the entire Donetsk and Lugansk regions are freed” of Ukrainian troops should the talks fail.
OSCE officials had said they hoped a deal would also provide for the “unrestricted supply of basic goods and humanitarian assistance” as the civilian death toll mounts in rebel regions Donetsk and Lugansk.
Fighting is raging around the strategic Ukrainian-controlled transport hub of Debaltseve, some 50 kilometres (35 miles) northeast of the separatist stronghold of Donetsk.
The town of 25,000 people was built around a railroad connecting the two rebel centres of the Russian-speaking southeast.
Defence Minister Stepan Poltorak for the first time said that separatist forces had taken “partial” control of Debaltseve, where rebels claim to have surrounded some 8,000 Ukrainian troops.
The rebels on Friday said that they had taken the town of Vuglegirsk — some 10 kilometres from Debaltseve — although Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said fighting there was ongoing.
Both towns are without water, electricity or heating, said regional police chief Vyacheslav Abroskin.
The latest violence has alarmed Ukraine’s Western allies, with US Secretary of State John Kerry announcing plans to express his support for the war-torn nation during talks in Kiev on Thursday with President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
Kerry will then meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of a security conference in Munich, the State Department said.
Western governments and Ukraine accuse Russia of arming and training the rebels, who are deploying extensive weaponry including tanks and multiple rocket launchers. Russia denies claims it has sent regular troops and arms to bolster the rebels, who claim to get all their weaponry from captured Ukrainian supplies.
The 28-nation EU on Thursday extended through September a first wave of targeted sanctions it had slapped on Moscow and Crimean leaders in the wake of Russia’s March seizure of the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine.
Russia accuses the West of manipulating the Ukrainian government, which came to power in elections after the ouster in huge street demonstrations last year of a Kremlin-backed leader.