Vadim Braydov / AP Photo

Deadly clashes in restive east Ukraine ahead of crunch peace talks

Violence kills dozens of soldiers, rebels and civilians as Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany leaders prepare to meet

Dozens have been killed in the latest round of fighting in Ukraine’s restive east, it was reported Wednesday as the strife-torn country’s leader prepared to join counterparts from Russia, Germany and France for peace talks in Minsk.

Nineteen Ukrainian soldiers were killed and 78 rebels wounded in fighting near the key railway town of Debaltseve, where government troops are trying to repel an advance from pro-Russian armed groups. The pro-Kiev forces died in “shelling, rocket attacks and military clashes,” military spokesman Vladyslav Seleznyov said.

Meanwhile in Donetsk, rebel officials said that five people were killed and nine wounded in a shelling attack early Wednesday on a bus station. Separately, Donetsk city officials said in a statement that three people had been killed in shelling overnight.

The latest incidents come amid a fresh diplomatic push to end the crisis in eastern Ukraine, where a truce, in place for months, has seemingly done nothing to stem the violence.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko posted a statement on his website saying that he had made an impromptu visit to the war-torn region early on Wednesday.

Poroshenko stopped in the city of Kramatorsk, about 31 miles from the nearest front line, where nevertheless Kiev said 16 people were killed and 48 wounded in a rocket strike on Tuesday.

"We demand an unconditional peace," Poroshenko said. "We demand a cease-fire, a withdrawal of all foreign troops, and closing of the border.... We will find a compromise within the country."

Later, in comments carried by Interfax-Ukraine news agency, Poroshenko said he was "ready to impose martial law across the country if we are not able to reach an agreement today in Minsk."

Poroshenko will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin later for peace talks in Minsk, Belarus. France and Germany, who are brokering the talks, have called on the warring parties to refrain from hostilities that could derail the four-way summit.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said early this week that "quite a number of problems remain" in negotiations aimed at ending the fighting.

Fabius said that it was "very probable" but not certain that French President Francois Hollande would attend the talks.

He said difficulties remain on the future of embattled eastern Ukraine, guarantees about the Ukraine-Russia border near the area, and the prospects of a possible cease-fire, weapons pullback and prisoner exchange.

Fabius said the aim of the talks is to win an accord, but "not just one on paper".

Ahead of Wednesday's talks, representatives of the separatists, Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe met for talks in Minsk.

These consultations were to continue on Wednesday afternoon, according to Russian presidential aide Vladislav Surkov. Asked whether any progress has been achieved already, Surkov said: "it's too early to say".

On Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama urged his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in a phone call to agree to a peace deal with the Ukrainian government.

"If Russia continues its aggressive actions in Ukraine, including by sending troops, weapons, and financing to support the separatists, the costs for Russia will rise," said a statement issued by the White House.

The Kremlin, however, emphasized in its statement about the call that the Ukraine crisis was an "internal" conflict.

Kiev and the West accuse Moscow of supplying and training the heavily armed separatists, but Russia denies the claims.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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