The pro-Russian rebels fighting government forces in eastern Ukraine said they’d scored a “breakthrough” in talks after the country suffered its deadliest day since mid-April.
Ukraine agreed with Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to establish four groups to hammer out a diplomatic solution to the war that has killed more than 6,100 people and devastated Ukraine’s economy. The groups met for the first time on Wednesday, OSCE representative Heidi Tagliavini said in Minsk, Belarus.
With both Ukraine and the separatists accusing each other of violating a February truce signed in the Belarusian capital, the talks represented the first direct contact between the separatists and Ukraine’s government. They were “serious step toward a political resolution,” Russian special envoy Azamat Kulmukhametov said in a briefing. Former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma said both sides “need to seek compromises.”
“A breakthrough happened today,” said Denis Pushilin, representative of the separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. “The main thing is that a dialog between Ukraine and the Donetsk and Luhansk republics has begun.”
The working groups will focus on security, politics, refugees and humanitarian aid, and the economy, Tagliavini said. Among other issues, they’ll address the continued use of artillery and other heavy weapons that were meant to be pulled back under the cease-fire and local elections in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that are now mostly under rebel control.
“We laid the foundation to solve all issues at the negotiating table, not on the battlefield,” Tagliavini said.
The first meeting may take place on May 14, according to Vladislav Deynego, a representative of the self-proclaimed separatist Luhansk People’s Republic.
“If the work in the subgroups doesn’t yield any result, we’ll have no other option but to appeal to UN or EU for peacekeepers,” Kuchma said at the briefing.
Five servicemen were killed in the past 24 hours, four by a land mine and one in an ambush, Defense Ministry spokesman Andriy Lysenko said Wednesday. Twelve were injured, while the separatists target the town of Shyrokyne, near the Mariupol port, he said. The rebels accused Ukraine of breaking the cease-fire 55 times in the past day, including with artillery.
“Ukraine has numerous pieces of evidence that insurgents are systematically violating” the cease-fire, Lysenko said in Kiev. “The enemy is delivering dense fire from heavy weapons -- large-caliber cannons, mortars. Snipers are also at work.”
While the peace accord brokered by Germany and Russia in February has curbed fighting in Ukraine’s yearlong insurgency, the conflict has shown signs of reigniting. Russia blames Ukraine for failing to fulfill the deal, while the government in Kiev say the rebels are breaching the truce on a daily basis. The separatists have threatened to seize more ground.