Russia and Ukraine’s foreign ministers agreed in Berlin on Wednesday that new ceasefire talks should be held this week, as government forces battled pro-Moscow insurgents in the former Soviet state.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had hastily convened the crisis meeting, also involving French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, warning that unless truce talks resume the country could face “an explosion of violence.”
Ukrainian troops backed by tanks and bomber jets have this week again fought separatist insurgents in the country’s east, in Europe’s worst fighting in nearly two decades that has claimed more than 450 lives in 11 weeks.
The latest clashes came after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ripped up a 10-day truce, which Kiev says the insurgents broke more than 100 times at the cost of 30 lives. The military then announced a “massive” anti-rebel operation in the east.
In their joint statement, the four top envoys agreed that fresh talks should start by tomorrow at the latest involving Moscow, Kiev, the rebels and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
The goal would be “reaching an unconditional and mutually agreed sustainable ceasefire,” they said, also calling for the release of hostages, the protection of journalists and full Ukrainian control of its border checkpoints with Russia.
“An explosion of violence can occur at any time that can’t be controlled politically or militarily,” Steinmeier said.
Amid the diplomatic efforts in Berlin, violence raged in Ukraine.
A spokesman for the national security and defense council in Kiev said militias had killed four Ukrainian soldiers and wounded 10 others in separate mortar fire attacks along the Russian border.
They were the first casualties reported by Kiev in the second stage of the low-scale war. Regional officials also confirmed the deaths of four civilians in a roadside attack on a bus.
However, Acting Ukrainian Defense Minister Mykhailo Koval told reporters that the military operation was progressing “according to plan. The advantage is on our side.”
Ukrainian border guards and troops with armored personnel carriers were in control of the Dolzhansky border post, which they said they retook from the rebels on Tuesday.
A bombed-out roadside cafe and the mangled remains of customs trailers provided evidence of heavy shelling, while bullet casings littered the tarmac.
A border guard official said that retaking control of the frontier with Russia was a key objective, stating that “we are moving from controlling our border to defending it.”
A spokesman for the rebels in the industrial province of Lugansk told Russian media that shelling by government forces had killed 10 civilians overnight.
In Berlin, Steinmeier said that in the past 48 hours the situation had “dramatically escalated ... and might get totally out of control.”
“Unfortunately, we lost time, we lost two days, because the ceasefire was not extended,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. “We got a very clear idea of the price we had to pay because of the inability to extend the ceasefire. Infrastructure has been destroyed, lives have been put at risk.”
Steinmeier said that the agreement was “not a magic formula that will put everything right overnight,” but said it was “an important step in the direction of a bilateral ceasefire.”