Peace efforts from Germany, France and Russia to resolve the bloody conflict in Ukraine
Moscow ( AP + DIPLOMAT.SO) – Russian President Vladimir Putin and the leaders of France and Germany began talks Friday on a new proposal for ending the fighting in eastern Ukraine.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande brought a proposal to Moscow a day after discussing it with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Kiev. The contents of the proposal have not been revealed, but it is aimed at salvaging a peace plan agreed upon last year in Minsk, Belarus.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a statement the talks were taking place “eye to eye” between the three leaders without other members of their delegations.
“Everyone is aware that the first step must be the cease-fire, but that it cannot suffice. We must seek a global solution,” Hollande told journalists in Paris before heading to Moscow.
Even getting the arms to fall silent would be a significant diplomatic breakthrough. Fighting between Russian-backed rebels and the government in Kiev has surged in the last month in eastern Ukraine. That has fueled fears the conflict is threatening Europe’s overall security and prompted the U.S. to consider giving lethal weapons to Ukraine, an option opposed by European nations.
Russia has vehemently denied backing the rebels with troops and weapons but the top NATO commander, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, said Thursday that Russia continues to supply the separatists with heavy, state-of-the-art weapons, air defenses and fighters.
In Berlin, Merkel said she and Hollande would use “all our power with direct visits to Kiev and to Moscow today to stop the bloodshed as soon as possible and to fill the Minsk agreement with life.”
“We are convinced that there’s no military solution to this conflict,” Merkel added. “But we also know that it’s completely open whether we will manage to achieve a cease-fire with these talks.”
She rejected reports that she and Hollande were prepared to offer more territory to the Ukraine separatists, saying “I will never deal with territorial questions over another country.”
In Brussels, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden questioned Putin’s willingness to seek peace.
“(Putin) continues to call for new peace plans as his troops roll through the Ukrainian countryside and he absolutely ignores every agreement that his country has signed in the past and that he has signed,” Biden said.
Biden insisted the 28-nation European Union and the United States needed to stand together and support the government of Ukraine with financial and political aid.
Meanwhile, the foreign ministers of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France were all expected at the Munich Security Conference, which starts Friday and is expected to be dominated by the conflict in Ukraine.
The head of the conference, former German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger, called Merkel and Hollande’s trip to Moscow a “last, resolute attempt to implement the Minsk cease-fire agreement.”
“All sides know that fighting over every square meter won’t help anyone. What’s needed now is calm so there can be negotiations,” Ischinger told German public broadcaster ZDF.
Rebels, Ukraine govt forces jointly evacuate war-hit town
In the freezing, muddy winter that plagues eastern Ukraine, dozens of buses rolled down a highway Friday, bringing a glimmer of hope to those trapped for weeks in the crossfire of a relentless war.
The government-held town of Debaltseve, a key railway junction, has been the epicenter of recent battles between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian government troops. For two weeks, the town has been pounded by intense shelling that knocked out power, heat and running water in the dead of winter.
Separatist fighters have made advances, taking Vuhlehirsk, a rural settlement 10 kilometers (6 miles) to the west, as they sought to capture Debaltseve, which links by rail their two main strongholds, the eastern cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.
On Friday, in a move not seen before in this war, the two sides briefly ceased hostilities to jointly evacuate the few residents still remaining. Dozens of buses traveled in convoys to Debaltseve from both rebel and government territory to ferry locals away from danger.
“We agreed with the Ukrainian authorities that this would be done jointly, to give people the right to choose to go to the Ukrainian side or to go to Donetsk,” said Daria Morozova, a separatist official.
Despite earlier claims by Ukraine, the town of Vuhlehirsk appeared Friday to be fully under the control of the separatists. A three-story building on the main square was completely burned out, a gaping hole in its facade. Associated Press journalists saw half a dozen destroyed armored vehicles in nearby areas, a testimony to the town’s intense battles.
It took a leap of faith and some gritty manual labor Friday to even get the evacuation convoys rolling in the heavy mist that enveloped the area.
Rebel-organized buses had to stop along the road for several minutes after coming across huge concrete blocks placed by Ukrainian forces to halt advancing tanks.
After the obstacles were towed off by a car belonging to monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a Ukrainian armored personnel carrier came from the opposite direction. A soldier quickly dismounted and nervously trained his rifle toward nearby fields.
More Ukrainian military trucks and armored vehicles were parked on the artillery-riddled outskirts of Debaltseve. A bulldozer bore an inscription “Putin is a piece of crap,” sprayed with white paint.
Several residents didn’t know the evacuation was taking place until the buses arrived. Some said they could not get back home and bring family members to the collection point in time. Many looked exhausted.
Alexander Klimenko, deputy head of the Donetsk regional government loyal to Kiev, estimated that 3,000 people still remained in Debaltseve out of its previous 25,000 residents.
Eduard Basurin, a rebel spokesman, said some 1,000 civilians were expected to be evacuated Friday but Morozova later told the AP that only about 50 people left on the rebels’ 20-odd buses.
One man, who gave his name only as Sergei, said he couldn’t leave as he had nowhere to resettle with his friendly Labrador, Charlie.
At one municipal building, those intending to remain in Debaltseve despite the evacuation and the imminent possibility of renewed shelling collected plastic bags stuffed with food, including rice, noodles, canned food, oil and other basic goods.
Arguments broke out at the food handout line. One woman complained that the labels showed the canned food had expired several years ago.
Shortly after the bus convoys arrived, the Ukrainian army began firing outgoing artillery from positions near the center of town. Groups of Ukrainian military, separatists and international observers huddled to one side of the square where the food was being handed out, unfazed by the shelling.
“So when are the Americans going to send us some tanks?” National Guard officer Ilya Kiva asked AP reporters.
To the west, artillery duels between rebels and government forces hit several places in Donetsk, including a cafe.
The evacuation unfolded ahead of talks in Moscow between German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Russian President Vladimir Putin. A day earlier, Merkel and Hollande had visited Kiev to discuss ways to achieve peace in the separatist region with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
Russia has acknowledged that some of its citizens are fighting among the rebels, but rejects Ukrainian and Western charges that it’s backing the insurgency with troops and weapons. Yet NATO’s top commander, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, says Russia continues to supply the separatists with heavy state-of-the-art weapons, air defenses and fighters.
The fighting has killed more than 5,300 people since April and displaced over 900,000, according to the U.N.
Speaking in Debaltseve, Zorian Shkiryak, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said he had little confidence that a lasting settlement could be reached for eastern Ukraine.
“For that to happen, Putin has to remove his army and soldiers and allow the Ukrainian authorities and the Ukrainian people to resolve matters on their own territory,” he told the AP. “But I have little hopes in this respect.”
A disenchanted Donetsk retiree also dismissed the new European peace initiative.
“I don’t expect anything. I’m so tired of this. It has been going on for so long,” said Esfira Papunova.For more news and stories, join us on Facebook,Twitter , or contact us through our Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com