Peace talks on Ukraine ended without an agreement Saturday with a government representative accusing separatist envoys of undermining the meeting by making ultimatums and refusing to discuss plans for a ceasefire, Interfax news agency said.
Representatives for the rebels, Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe spent four hours at a government compound in Minsk, Belarus as part of closed-door negotiations aimed at establishing a truce between government and separatist forces fighting in eastern Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in a telephone conversation, all expressed hope that the negotiations would focus on a cease-fire and pulling out heavy weaponry from residential areas, the Kremlin said.
But after the talks came to an end late Saturday evening, Ukraine’s envoy, Leonid Kuchma, told Interfax the negotiations had been "thwarted" after top rebel leaders stayed away and their negotiators refused “to discuss a plan of measures for a quick ceasefire and a pull-back of heavy weapons”.
He also accused the insurgents' representatives of putting forward "ultimatums", without giving any more details.
The negotiator for the rebel Donetsk People's Republic, Denis Pushilin, however, blamed Kiev for causing the collapse of the talks and said insurgent leaders would only sign a deal if Kiev's forces halt fire first, Russian news wires reported.
Fighting rages in Debaltseve as civilians flee
The sit-down in the Belarusian capital was aimed at halting fierce battles between government forces and separatists that have claimed scores of lives in recent days.
Fighting has been focused on the strategic transport hub of Debaltseve, some 50 kilometres (35 miles) from rebel bastion Donetsk and the battle for the town continued to rage Saturday even as the peace talks were taking place.
Outgoing heavy-caliber fire boomed incessantly, shaking the ground and rattling windows around the besieged town. Residents of Debaltseve, seemingly inured to the racket, listened impassively as they mustered at the town hall on Saturday to be evacuated with as many belongings as they could carry.
The government-held town has been without power, water and gas for at least 10 days, prompting many to flee from an intense artillery duel between government and separatist forces. Almost every one of the largely deserted streets in the center showed signs of having been struck by projectiles.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said on Saturday that 1,000 residents have been evacuated in the past days from Debaltseve. But the number of crammed civilian vehicles seen speeding out of the town’s rutted, icy roads over the past few days suggests official figures may be on the conservative side.
“Six buses shuttle (refugees) from there and they constantly come under fire,” Yatseniuk said in comments carried by his press office. “As soon as they (the rebels) see that we are evacuating the people, they open fire.”
Vyacheslav Abroskin, head of police for the Donetsk region, said 12 people had been killed by shelling in Debaltseve. He did not specify over what period the deaths had taken place.
Fighting inched toward Debaltseve this week when separatists burst through government lines to occupy part of the town of Vuhlehirsk.
The towns are separated by 13 kilometers (eight miles) of road and railroad. When Ukrainian troops were overrun by formidably armed rebel attackers Thursday, some soldiers were forced to retreat to their positions in Debaltseve on foot.
Despite claiming to rely solely on military equipment poached from the Ukrainian army, separatist forces have consistently deployed vast quantities of powerful weapons, some of which military experts say is not even known to be in Ukraine’s possession.
Since the conflict started in April, it has claimed more than 5,100 lives and displaced more than 900,000 people across the country, according to UN estimates.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP, REUTERS)