The war in Ukraine intensifies ahead of peace talks
Ukrainian government forces launched a surprise offensive near the strategic sea-port of Mariupol yesterday morning, in an apparent bid to seize ground ahead of crunch peace talks in Minsk today.
The move comes as Russian-backed separatist forces scramble to complete the encirclement of a government-held railway junction as part of their own pre-talks offensive.
Oleksander Turchynov, the secretary of Ukraine's security council, "is near Mariupol, where units of the national guard broke through enemy defences and went on the offensive", the security council said in a statement.
Azov Regiment, a pro-government militia that has been incorporated into the Ukrainian National Guard, said on its Facebook page that it had seized at least three villages to the east of the port by early afternoon.
The Ukrainian move appears to be a response to a three-week-old rebel general offensive that sparked panic in Western capitals and prompted a whirlwind round of diplomacy to try to end the war.
The separatists, who Kiev and Western governments say are backed by Russian armour, artillery and troops, have focused their efforts on encircling thousands of Ukrainian troops at Deblatsevo, a strategic railway junction north east of Donetsk.
Separatist commanders said they cut the last road into the town on Monday night. The Ukrainian government has denied the reports.
Rebel gains in recent weeks seem in part designed to allow Russian and the separatists delegates to effectively dictate the terms of any peace deal.
Vladimir Putin will meet Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian president, to discuss a Franco-German brokered peace plan in Minsk later today.
While details of the plan have not been released, it is understood to be based on the September 5 Minsk accord, which called for a ceasefire along the front-line at the time and envisioned Kiev devolving power to its eastern provinces.
The new agreement is likely to move the cease-fire line to grant the separatists control of ground they have gained in intervening months and may introduce a demilitarised buffer-zone between the two sides.
President Obama said at a press conference with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, that he would consider delivering weapons to Ukraine if diplomacy fails. Today's meeting comes at a moment of significant escalation in the crisis with some, including French president Francois Hollande, warning of "total war". While the Hollande-Merkel plan has now been discussed with multiple other world leaders, including on Friday in Moscow with Vladimir Putin and Monday in Washington with Barack Obama, there is no clear sign yet of a genuine breakthrough.
The plan also reportedly includes a proposed demilitarised zone of 50-70km around the present front line. (© Daily Telegraph London)