KIEV: Ukrainian separatists agreed yesterday to resume peace talks to end the conflict in the east, but President Petro Poroshenko warned he might not extend a ceasefire beyond tonight if their gesture was aimed only at buying time.
The move by the pro-Russian rebels, who have been fighting government forces since April, came after German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin for the second time in two days to discuss how to end the crisis.
In Berlin, a government source said the aim of the phone call, which Moscow said took place at Merkel’s initiative, was to find a way of prolonging Kiev’s ceasefire which is due to expire at 10pm (1900 GMT) today.
More than 420 people, including Ukrainian servicemen, rebels and civilians, are estimated to have been killed in the fighting, the United Nations said in a statement dated June 24.
Poroshenko said he had heard of the rebels’ readiness to hold a second meeting on Friday with the so-called “contact group” which includes former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, Moscow’s envoy to Kiev and a high-ranking official from the OSCE security and rights watchdog.
But, despite Western pressure on him, Poroshenko hinted heavily that there might be no extension of the ceasefire unless Kiev was satisfied with the results of contact group talks. “It (Friday) is a very important day: if our conditions for the peace plan are not accepted, then we will make a very important decision,” online newspaper Ukrainska Pravda quoted him as telling the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France.
Poroshenko, installed as president only on June 7 and under pressure from his electorate not to bow to the separatists, has warned that government forces would switch to a “detailed Plan B” if the rebels use the ceasefire to re-arm and regroup.
Numerous breaches of the ceasefire have increased pressure on him to call the truce off. In Strasbourg, he said almost 150 Ukrainian servicemen had been killed by rebels, including 18 in the past week since the ceasefire was declared.
He again criticised Russia for failing to give fuller support to his peace plan and for failing to halt arms supplies to rebels and stop “mercenaries” crossing into Ukraine. Moscow denies arming the rebels.
“It is clear that this peace plan can work only with the support of Russia. Unfortunately, the support of the Russian Federation is completely inadequate. Instead of them calling back their mercenaries, even more new, well-equipped and motivated fighters are arriving from the Russian Federation,” Poroshenko told the Council of Europe session.