Ukraine crisis: Diplomats convene in Paris as fragile ceasefire holds despite isolated attacks

President Putin has declared that a war between Russia and Ukraine is 'unlikely', and again denied Russian troops and arms are in use in the current hostilities

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The Independent Online

Urgent attempts to stop the fragile ceasefire in Ukraine from shattering have continued amid continuing uncertainty over a key plank of the peace deal.

The foreign ministers of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France met in Paris to review the situation on the ground since the accord was signed on 12 February in Minsk, Belarus, and to decide on possible confidence-building measures. Speaking in Moscow, Vladimir Putin declared that a war between Russia and Ukraine was “unlikely”. He denied, again, that Russian troops and arms were in use in Ukraine – a charge made repeatedly by the Kiev government and the West.

The Russian President stressed his backing for the Minsk agreement, pointing out that it was now an established “international legal document” following approval by the United Nations Security Council.

One reason for this emphasis on legal status, according to diplomats, is to prevent the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force. The Ukrainian leader, Petro Poroshenko, wants the force on the ground, but it has been rejected by the separatists and Moscow, who say it is not part of the deal.

Although there has been a marked downturn in hostilities since the separatists achieved their objective of capturing the town of Debaltseve, a strategic hub, the withdrawal of heavy weaponry stipulated under the deal has been mired in recriminations between the two sides.

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Destroyed Ukrainian army vehicles, missiles and live ammunition litter the road to Artemivsk, outside Debaltseve (AP)

While many residents fled Debaltseve, some stayed. They included Nina Shono, 80, one of eight people who sheltered in a basement through weeks of intense bombardment. “When we were bombed, we were praying and I was crossing myself, everything was collapsing. One explosion. The second explosion, the third. But we are still sitting here,” she told Reuters.

Ms Shono’s neighbour, Alexander Drozd, 65, said they had survived on bread and pickles. “During the heavy shelling we couldn’t stick our heads out from the basement,” he said. “We ran out of candles. We had no fuel for a generator.”

Eduard Basurin, a rebel commander in the Donetsk region, insisted that his fighters had already begun a large-scale pullback of artillery.

 

But the Ukrainian security spokesman, Colonel Andriy Lysenko, maintained that the rebels “are just regrouping their gangs and are relocating their weapons”.As for the government, he added: “As soon as there is a ceasefire for two days, that is the signal to start a withdrawal.”

Kiev claimed the separatists were still breaking the ceasefire by shelling the town of Popasna, near Luhansk, and attempting to storm a post in the village of Shyrokyne, near Mauripol. Michael Bociurkiw, an OSCE observer monitoring the ceasefire, refused to comment on the accusations until further information was provided by teams surveying the conflict sites.

Russia’s Sergei Lavrov said Paris talks were focused on implementation. “The most important thing is to ensure the ceasefire,” he said.

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said all four countries “remain determined to continue action in this format and do the utmost to ensure” promises are kept.

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