January 31, 2015 / 11:48 AM / 3 years ago

Ukraine, rebels hold fresh peace talks as fighting rages in east

MINSK/KIEV (Reuters) - Ukrainian and Russian representatives and separatist envoys met in a new round of peace talks on Saturday as fighting between Kiev's forces and the Russian-backed rebels raged on in Ukraine's east, claiming more civilian and military lives.

The main members of the so-called contact group - Ukrainian former president Leonid Kuchma, a Russian diplomat and an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe official - met at a state residence in the Belarussian capital Minsk, where they were joined by two separatist officials.

The sides have held only one inconclusive meeting since agreeing a ceasefire last September as part of a 12-point blueprint for peace. Much-violated from the start, that truce collapsed completely with a new rebel advance last week.

Both sides have accused each other of deadly artillery and mortar strikes on civilian targets in the past two weeks, including on a cultural centre in the main regional city of Donetsk on Friday which killed at least five people waiting for humanitarian hand-outs.

In a three-way phone call, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande discussed the situation in Ukraine which has brought the worst crisis in Russia-West relations since the end of the Cold War more than 20 years ago.

A German government spokesman said that the three leaders had agreed that the Minsk meeting should at least produce a ceasefire agreement.

"That would be the starting point for a broader solution to the problem," the spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said.

The September Minsk peace plan also called for tighter control of the joint Russia-Ukraine border, through which Kiev says Moscow is funnelling fighters and equipment, and the freeing of prisoners held by the sides.

Much has changed on the ground, however, since September.

The separatists have set up self-proclaimed 'people's republics' while their forces, which Kiev says are supported by 9,000 Russian regular troops, have seized more than 500 square km (193 square miles) of territory beyond that agreed in the Minsk talks and threaten to seize control of the east's two main regions entirely.

Heavy shelling continued on Saturday in Ukraine's eastern regions as the separatists sought to tighten a circle around government forces clinging on to control of the strategic rail and road junction of Debaltseve.

Regional police chief Vyacheslav Abroskin, in a Facebook post, said 12 civilians had been killed on Saturday by separatist artillery shelling of the town, which lies to the north-east of Donetsk.

Defence Minister Stepan Poltorak said 15 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed and 30 wounded in clashes across the east.

"The toughest situation is in the Vuhlehirsk area where the terrorists are trying to seize the town and occupy positions to move forward and encircle Debaltseve," military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said in a separate briefing.

Debaltseve is on the main highway linking Donetsk and the other big rebel-controlled city of Luhansk and is also a vital rail link for goods traffic from Russia which Kiev accuses of arming the rebels.

The rebels were also continuing to threaten Mariupol, a town of half a million in the south-east of the country on the coast of Sea of Azov, Lysenko said.

More than 5,000 people have been killed in the Ukraine conflict which erupted last April following Russia's annexation of Crimea in response to the ousting of a Moscow-backed president in Kiev by street protests.

The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Russia because of what they say is incontrovertible proof that its troops are fighting on behalf of the separatists and providing them with military equipment. Moscow denies this is so.

Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets in Kiev and Paul Carrel in Berlin; Editing by Stephen Powell

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