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Friday 20 April 2018

Ukraine peace talks move to Moscow

Vladimir Putin with Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel (AP)
Vladimir Putin with Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel (AP)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives at Vnukovo airport in Moscow. (AP)

French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have arrived in Moscow to seek a ceasefire and then a lasting peace for war-ravaged eastern Ukraine.

Their meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin comes a day after the two talked with the Ukrainian government in Kiev about how to salvage a peace plan agreed on last year in Minsk, Belarus.

"Everyone is aware that the first step must be the ceasefire, but that it cannot suffice. We must seek a global solution," Mr Hollande told journalists in Paris before heading to the airport.

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 fuelled fears the conflict is threatening Europe's overall security and prompted the US to consider giving lethal weapons to Ukraine, an option opposed by European nations.

Russia has denied backing the rebels with troops and weapons but senior Nato commander, US Air Force General Philip Breedlove, said Russia continues to supply the separatists with heavy, state-of-the-art weapons, air defences and fighters.

In Berlin, Ms Merkel said she and Mr 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," Ms Merkel added. "But we also know that it's completely open whether we will manage to achieve a ceasefire with these talks."

She rejected reports that she and Mr Hollande were prepared to offer more territory to the Ukraine separatists, saying: "I will never deal with territorial questions over another country."

In Brussels, US vice president Joe Biden questioned Mr 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," Mr Biden said.

He insisted the 28-nation European Union and the US 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 are all expected at the Munich Security Conference, which starts today and is expected to be dominated by the conflict in Ukraine.

The head of the conference, former German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger, called Ms Merkel and Mr Hollande's trip to Moscow a "last, resolute attempt to implement the Minsk ceasefire agreement".

"All sides know that fighting over every square metre won't help anyone. What's needed now is calm so there can be negotiations," Mr Ischinger told German public broadcaster ZDF.

On the ground in eastern Ukraine, the rebels and the Ukrainian authorities agreed today on a humanitarian corridor to evacuate civilians from the epicentre of the fighting, Debaltseve, a key railway hub between the two main rebel-controlled cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.

A local ceasefire held as several dozen buses drove from nearby Vuhelhirsk toward Debaltseve, where residents have been trapped in the crossfire and left without power, heating or running water for almost two weeks.

Eduard Basurin, a rebel spokesman, said authorities expected to evacuate about 1,000 civilians today and they would be offered the choice of going to either rebel or government-controlled territory.

Press Association

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