Maxim Zmeyev / Reuters

Merkel, Hollande in Moscow for Ukraine talks

Initiative to end the conflict comes as rebels and Ukraine government agree on plan to evacuate civilians from war zone

Russian President Vladimir Putin and the leaders of France and Germany began talks Friday on the second leg of a dramatic initiative to end a conflict in Ukraine that has killed more than 5,000 people and driven Russia-West relations to new lows.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François 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.

Before arriving in Russia, Hollande called the talks "the first step," while Merkel said it was unclear whether the meeting in Moscow would secure a ceasefire. Her spokesman said there was "no sign whatsoever" of a breakthrough so far.

In a sign of the tense atmosphere, the leaders went straight into the Kremlin for talks, without the usual diplomatic niceties of a welcoming handshake for the cameras. They emerged briefly after a 75-minute working dinner for a photo opportunity in an ornate Kremlin hall, before talks resumed.

German government sources said on Thursday that the key problem for resuming peace talks was that current front lines no longer tally with what was agreed at talks in Minsk, Belarus, last September.

One idea was that a new attempt at a ceasefire should take in the current front lines, which reflect rebel gains, without Kiev having to give up its claim to these areas as part of the Ukrainian state.

Merkel and Hollande's initiative comes amid an agreement by Ukraine and pro-Russia rebels to open a humanitarian corridor to evacuate civilians from the epicenter of fighting in eastern Ukraine.

Rebel leaders on Friday said they reached agreement with Ukrainian authorities to allow the evacuation of civilians from Debaltseve, a key railway hub on a link between the two main rebel-controlled cities that has become the main target of a rebel offensive. It wasn't immediately clear where the evacuees would go.

The agreement follows fierce fighting and territorial gains in eastern Ukraine by Russian-backed separatists since a peace blueprint was agreed in Belarus in September.

The Ukrainian military reported that two more soldiers had been killed in the past 24 hours in the east, with 26 wounded.

The growing military pressure has shaken the Ukrainian economy and driven a debate over the possibility of the United States providing Kiev's hard-pressed army with arms to fight the rebels.

But several European defense ministers on Thursday voiced opposition to sending weapons to Ukraine, fearing it could fuel the conflict.

"More weapons in this area will not bring us closer to a solution, and will not end the suffering of the population," German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen told reporters.

Merkel told reporters on Monday during a trip to Budapest, Hungary, that Berlin “will not support Ukraine with weapons. I am convinced this conflict cannot be solved by military means.”  And France on Wednesday also said that for now it opposed delivering any weapons to Ukraine.

Merkel said she and Hollande were not heading to Moscow as neutral mediators but were representing European interests.

"These interests are peace, maintaining Europe's peaceful order," she said.

A statement on Poroshenko's website said the sides had expressed the hope that "Russia had an interest in" a peaceful settlement of the conflict.

For Moscow's part, Russia's ambassador to France Alexander Orlov told Europe 1 radio there was an urgent need to avoid war. "I wouldn't say it's a last chance meeting, but it's not far off," he said.

Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert said there "was no sign whatsoever" of a breakthrough so far.

The Ukrainian presidential statement said Poroshenko and the German and French leaders had called for a quick cease-fire, the withdrawal of foreign forces from Ukraine, the pull-back of heavy weapons and equipment, the closure of the border and the release of all prisoners.

A collapse in Ukraine's hryvnia currency further highlighted the importance of reaching a deal. It lost nearly a third of its value on Thursday after the central bank halted daily auctions at which it sold hard currency to banks.

Al Jazeera and news services


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