MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin and the leaders of France and Germany began talks Friday on a new proposal for ending the fighting in eastern Ukraine.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande brought a proposal to Moscow a day after discussing it with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Kiev. The contents of the proposal have not been revealed, but it is aimed at salvaging a peace plan agreed upon last year in Minsk, Belarus.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a statement the talks were taking place "eye to eye" between the three leaders without other members of their delegations.
"Everyone is aware that the first step must be the cease-fire, but that it cannot suffice. We must seek a global solution," Hollande told journalists in Paris before heading to Moscow.
Even getting the arms to fall silent would be a significant diplomatic breakthrough. Fighting between Russian-backed rebels and the government in Kiev has surged in the last month in eastern Ukraine. That has fueled fears the conflict is threatening Europe's overall security and prompted the U.S. to consider giving lethal weapons to Ukraine, an option opposed by European nations.
Russia has vehemently denied backing the rebels with troops and weapons but the top NATO commander, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, said Thursday that Russia continues to supply the separatists with heavy, state-of-the-art weapons, air defenses and fighters.
In Berlin, Merkel said she and Hollande would use "all our power with direct visits to Kiev and to Moscow today to stop the bloodshed as soon as possible and to fill the Minsk agreement with life."
"We are convinced that there's no military solution to this conflict," Merkel added. "But we also know that it's completely open whether we will manage to achieve a cease-fire with these talks."
She rejected reports that she and Hollande were prepared to offer more territory to the Ukraine separatists, saying "I will never deal with territorial questions over another country."
In Brussels, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden questioned Putin's willingness to seek peace.
"(Putin) continues to call for new peace plans as his troops roll through the Ukrainian countryside and he absolutely ignores every agreement that his country has signed in the past and that he has signed," Biden said.
Biden insisted the 28-nation European Union and the United States needed to stand together and support the government of Ukraine with financial and political aid.
Meanwhile, the foreign ministers of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France were all expected at the Munich Security Conference, which starts Friday and is expected to be dominated by the conflict in Ukraine.
The head of the conference, former German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger, called Merkel and Hollande's trip to Moscow a "last, resolute attempt to implement the Minsk cease-fire agreement."
"All sides know that fighting over every square meter won't help anyone. What's needed now is calm so there can be negotiations," Ischinger told German public broadcaster ZDF.
On the ground in eastern Ukraine, the rebels and the Ukrainian authorities briefly halted hostilities Friday to evacuate civilians from Debaltseve, a besieged key railway hub between the two main rebel-controlled cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Dozens of buses drove in from both rebel-held and government territory to carry away residents who had been trapped in the crossfire without power, heat or running water for two weeks.
Authorities expected to evacuate about 1,000 civilians from the town Friday, offering them the choice of going to either rebel- or government-controlled territory. One rebel spokeswoman, however, told The Associated Press that only about 50 people left on the rebels' 20-odd buses.
Several residents didn't know the evacuation was taking place until the buses arrived and could not bring family members to the collection point in time. Many looked exhausted. Bags of food — rice, noodles, canned goods — were handed out to those staying in the town, and arguments erupted in the food line. One woman noticed that some of the canned goods had expired years ago.
To the west, artillery duels between the rebels and government forces rumbled through Donetsk, where one disenchanted resident had little hope for the new European peace initiative.
"I don't expect anything. I'm so tired of this. It has been going on for so long," said retiree Esfira Papunova.
Frank Jordans in Berlin, Sylvie Corbet in Paris, Peter Leonard in Debaltseve, Ukraine and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this story.
By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV (Associated Press)