Foreign ministers from Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France have called for a total ceasefire in eastern Ukraine as Russian President Vladimir Putin ruled out the “apocalyptic scenario” of all-out war.
Top diplomats from the four countries, whose leaders hammered out the initial peace plan in the Belarussian capital Minsk 12 days ago, met in Paris, with Kiev accusing Moscow and pro-Russian rebels on the ground of torpedoing the truce.
“We call for the strict implementation of all provisions of the Minsk accords starting with a total ceasefire and complete withdrawal of heavy weapons,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said after three hours of talks.
The meeting honed in on the situation in the strategic transport hub of Debaltseve, which seized by pro-Russian rebels last week in defiance of the ceasefire – meant to start on February 15 – as well as fresh rebel attacks on the port city of Mariupol.
“Unfortunately there was no political agreement on how to condemn what happened in Debaltseve,” said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin.
Fighting has dropped off significantly since the rebel assault on Debaltseve but clashes still continue around strategic flashpoints in Ukraine’s industrial east.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that the situation was “extremely fragile” after repeated violations of the ceasefire.
Ukraine’s military said one soldier was killed and seven injured in the past 24 hours and that rebels had again tried to storm the village of Shyrokine which lies east of Mariupol.
A rebel commander close to the village told AFP that three of his fighters were killed by Ukrainian bombardments on Monday and that there was “daily fighting”.
The continuing clashes have delayed a pull-back of heavy weapons that was due to start a week ago under the peace plan.
Kiev refuses to withdraw its big guns from the frontline until the shooting stops definitively.
The rebels have claimed several times that they have started to withdraw arms but this has not been confirmed by monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
Steinmeier said that starting to pull out heavy weapons would be a small step towards rebuilding shattered trust between the warring parties.
“This is completely missing at the moment and that is why the work is so difficult right now,” he said.
Steinmeier also warned that further efforts by the rebels to expand their territory, including a bid to seize Mariupol “would completely change the foundation of the Minsk accords. We would be facing a new situation.”
The ministers meeting in Paris called for the OSCE mission to be allowed access to all conflict zones to “verify the withdrawal of heavy weapons”.
“We call for the extension of its mandate with supplementary staff, equipment and financing,” Fabius said.
The latest fighting came as Putin – whom Kiev and the West accused of masterminding the conflict – said he thought the prospect of all-out war between Russia and Ukraine unlikely.
Asked in an interview with Russian state television if he thought the current situation could lead to a direct confrontation, the Russian president said: “I think that such an apocalyptic scenario is unlikely and I hope that it will never happen.
“If the Minsk accords are complied with, then I am sure that the situation will gradually get back to normal.”
He added: “No one needs a conflict, moreover an armed one, on the periphery of Europe.”
Ukraine has accused Russia of sending in more tanks to bolster rebel forces around Mariupol, the latest allegation that Moscow is spearheading the insurgency.
Moscow denies it is sending arms and troops into the former Soviet state.
However it made similar denials over Crimea – the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula it annexed last year – before finally admitting that it had deployed forces.
If Mariupol were to fall to the pro-Russian rebels, it would remove a key obstacle to creating a land corridor stretching from Russia’s border with Ukraine to Crimea.
Germany and France brokered the Minsk truce in a last-ditch effort to end fighting that has claimed at least 5,793 lives since April 2014.
The peace deal was subsequently endorsed by the UN Security Council.
Until now, the main act of compliance with the Minsk agreement has been a prisoner swap on Saturday in which nearly 200 captured fighters from both sides were traded.
The United States and the European Union have issued strong warnings against further breaches of the ceasefire, with Washington saying that extra “consequences” could be imposed on Russia within days.
Russia has already been hit by successive rounds of Western sanctions, savaging its economy.
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