MINSK – Tortuous talks in Minsk between the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France dragged towards dawn on Thursday as they tussled over a plan to end 10 months of fighting in Ukraine.
The tense negotiations entered their eleventh hour after opening on Wednesday evening with a brief handshake between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who were meeting for the first time since October.
The crunch four-way meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande in the Belarussian capital was the climax of a frantic European diplomatic drive aimed at stopping the worst East-West crisis since the end of the Cold War from escalating.
Underscoring the urgency, the number of those reported killed in the hours before the make-or-break talks rose to at least 49 as rebels said another civilian was killed when a hospital in their bastion Donetsk was shelled as the leaders met, following the earlier deaths of 16 people in a devastating rocket attack.
"Today the peace process for Ukraine is all about Minsk and I hope that the meeting will fulfil our best expectations," Poroshenko told host Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko ahead of the talks.
'Yawning but still arguing'
By 6am local time the marathon negotiations passed the ten-hour mark and the four leaders remained shut in an ornate meeting room in Minsk's opulent presidential palace without their advisors.
"Everybody is yawning but they are still arguing," said a source close to one of the delegations.
France's Hollande had said prior to the meeting in Minsk that he and Merkel would "try everything right to the end" to try to get something from the last-ditch meeting.
Earlier, a senior Ukrainian diplomat said on condition of anonymity that the talks were making "progress" but also proving "very hard".
Another source with knowledge of the discussions had said the leaders hoped to sign a joint statement calling for the fulfilment of an earlier failed peace plan signed by Kiev and the rebels in September.
Separatist negotiators meanwhile met on Wednesday elsewhere in Minsk to agree how to implement previous truce deals with representatives from Kiev, Moscow and mediators from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
The most pressing element is the need to agree an immediate ceasefire between the two sides that would see an end to the surging fighting that has killed hundreds of civilians in recent weeks.
A key sticking point is whether a new deal will extend rebel control over 500 sq.km of territory seized over the past month.
Western diplomats warn that the sides also remain deadlocked over other key issues including how Ukraine can shore up a rebel-controlled 400 kilometres stretch of its border with Russia.
Moscow is also pushing for the separatist-held territories to be granted a large degree of autonomy, but Kiev only says that it is willing to decentralise some powers.
Poroshenko warned before the talks that he would introduce martial law throughout the country if they fail to stop a war that has already claimed more than 5,300 lives.
Martial law would mark a significant escalation of the crisis, freeing up military resources for the fight in the east but also likely leading to the severance of foreign investment for cash-strapped Ukraine, including a vital IMF loan. — AFP