Russian FM says Ukraine peace talks to focus on frontline

Russian FM says Ukraine peace talks to focus on frontline

MOSCOW (AP) — Moscow has proposed restoring a previously agreed line of division in eastern Ukraine to end an escalation of fighting near Donetsk, and has secured rebel agreement to pull back heavy weapons behind it, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday.

On the ground, however, major movements of weaponry directed by Russian-backed separatist forces toward another flashpoint near Luhansk, some 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of the Russian border, appeared to presage intensified hostilities.

Lavrov, who was set to meet with Ukrainian, French and German counterparts in Berlin later in the day, said the withdrawal of artillery should help end a recent escalation of the battle for control of Donetsk's airport.

The now-destroyed airport has been the focus of fighting for months because of its strategic location and symbolic value for both sides. Fighting in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 4,700 people since April, including at least six on Tuesday.

Attention is turning to another brewing confrontation northwest of Luhansk, the second largest rebel-held city, where battle is being waged for control over two strategic checkpoints. Ukraine's Defense Ministry said one of those positions, checkpoint 31, had been abandoned but that operations were underway to retake it.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's office said late Tuesday he would cut short a visit to the World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort of Davos to monitor developments at the checkpoint.

Separatist forces appeared to be heavily bolstering their offensive capabilities in that location throughout Wednesday.

Around midday, an AP reporter saw nine Gvozdika self-propelled howitzers and six anti-tank cannons moving near the eastern Ukrainian town of Perevalsk. A militiaman with the convoy, who declined to provide his name, said the armament heading in the direction of checkpoint 31.

In another place along the same road, the AP saw four Grad multiple rockets launchers accompanied by four trucks carrying ammunition and 15 pristine-looking tanks, also heading toward the area of the checkpoint.

Lavrov said that continuing violations of a truce in the east were rooted in the failure to respect a division line agreed in September in peace talks in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. Lavrov said Russian President Vladimir Putin had written a letter to his Ukrainian counterpart proposing to use the original division line to conduct the withdrawal of heavy weapons.

Lavrov said that the current frontline differs from the original division line because the rebels had made some gains. He argued that using the original line of separation would help quickly de-escalate the fighting.

"We need to fulfill the main goal: protect the civilian population," Lavrov said. Though he said Russia had persuaded the rebels to abide by the original line of division as a marker for withdrawing heavy weapons, he said nothing about the rebels giving up their territorial gains.

Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Yevhen Perebyinis said Tuesday that separatist forces had seized 500 square kilometers (190 sq. miles) of territory since the division line was agreed.

Lavrov said that monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who have been present at two checkpoints on the Russian-Ukrainian border, could expand their monitoring to other sections of the border if they agree on that with the rebels.

Moscow has denied Ukrainian and Western claims that it provides manpower and arms to the separatists, saying no evidence has been produced, but has acknowledged that some Russians have joined the insurgents.

While Ukrainian government forces and the rebels use similar Soviet-designed weapons, the sheer number of sophisticated heavy weaponry in the insurgents' hands has been widely seen in the West as irrefutable evidence of Russia's direct involvement.

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Chernov reported from Perevalsk. Peter Leonard contributed from Kiev, Ukraine.

By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV and MSTYSLAV CHERNOV (Associated Press)

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