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Russia, EU Leaders Agree to Work on Ukraine Cease-Fire

Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, meets with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, and French President Francois Hollande in Moscow, Feb. 6, 2015.

The leaders of France, Germany, and Russia have failed to reach a breakthrough peace deal on Ukraine during talks in Moscow. But they agreed to work on a shaky September cease-fire.

The agreement came a day after the European leaders met Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko in Kyiv and follows a renewed assault by Russia-backed rebels. Ukrainians are hopeful for a lasting peace though many remain skeptical.

A Kremlin spokesman described Ukraine peace talks Friday between French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Russian President Vladimir Putin as constructive and substantive.

Dmitry Peskov indicated no new deal was reached after five hours of closed-door, private discussions in Moscow. But he said they agreed to work on a September cease-fire drawn up in the Belorussian capital, Minsk, that has been routinely violated.

Peskov said Putin, Merkel, Hollande and Poroshenko will engage in four-way talks by telephone Sunday.

French sources say those talks will focus on reviving a tattered peace deal signed in September that has since been discarded by both sides. More than a quarter of the rebellion's nearly 5,400 fatalities have occurred since then.

Deals under way

Ukraine insists that any new accord must honor cease-fire boundaries agreed on in September and can not include territory gained by rebels in recent weeks of heavy fighting.

Based on proposals made by the president of France and the German Chancellor, he said, work is under way to prepare the text of a possible joint document on implementation of the Minsk agreements.

The Minsk deal was supposed to end clashes in Ukraine and see a withdrawal of foreign fighters and military equipment. But western and Ukrainian officials accuse Russia of continuing to supply and support rebels fighting government forces in the east. The Kremlin denies it.

Peskov said the four leaders on Sunday will discuss the results of the Moscow meeting and work on the possible document.

He said the document would include proposals of the Ukrainian president and proposals formulated and added today by President Putin.

The Moscow meeting follows a sudden trip Thursday to Kyiv where the European leaders discussed a peace plan with Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko.

The renewed diplomatic effort comes after an upsurge in fighting between government forces and Russia-backed rebels and as the United States considers arming Ukraine.

Diplomats meet in Brussels

In Brussels Friday, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden accused Russia of continuing to escalate the conflict in Ukraine "by sending in mercenaries and tanks."

"Ukraine is fighting for the very survival now," Biden told reporters at a joint press briefing with President of the European Council, Donald Tusk. "This is the moment the U.S. and Europe must stand together. Russia cannot be allowed to redraw the map of Europe, because that's exactly what they are doing."

Biden is among the world leaders, diplomats and defense officials expected in Munich later Friday for a three-day security conference where the Ukraine crisis is high on the agenda. Top world leaders, diplomats and defense officials are expected at the conference, including Poroshenko, Biden, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Also Friday, pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian officials agreed to a temporary truce that allows for a humanitarian corridor so civilians can be evacuated from battle-scarred areas in eastern Ukraine. Convoys of buses converged Friday on the town of Debaltseve, where the population has been trapped in the crossfire of fierce fighting.

The United Nations refugee agency reported that the fighting in eastern Ukraine's Donetsk region has pushed the number of registered internally displaced people nationwide to 980,000. The UNHCR said another 600,000 Ukrainians have sought asylum or other forms of legal stay in neighboring countries, including Russia, Belarus, Moldova, Poland, Hungary and Romania, since last February.

US diplomatic efforts

On Thursday in Kyiv, Kerry blamed pro-Russian separatists and the Kremlin for the escalating violence in eastern Ukraine, saying Putin "can make the choices that could end this war."

Kerry spoke after talks with the president. "We want a diplomatic resolution," he said. "But we can not close our eyes to the tanks that are crossing the [Russian] border coming into Ukraine."

Russia has repeatedly denied direct involvement in the 10-month rebellion, which has claimed nearly 5,400 lives.

Lethal aid

Ahead of his meeting with Kerry, Ukraine's president told Germany's Die Welt newspaper the recent upsurge in fighting should move NATO to provide Ukraine with more support, including modern weapons.

"We still need a lot of military, technical, and specialist help to improve the fighting strength of the Ukrainian army," Poroshenko said in the interview. The Obama administration is evaluating those proposals, but has so far stopped short of providing Kyiv with lethal aid.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said Thursday that reports Washington may provide Kyiv with "modern lethal weapons" are a cause for "serious concern." Such a move, he said, would not only worsen the situation in eastern Ukraine, but "threaten the security of Russia, whose territory has been subjected to repeated attacks from the Ukrainian side."

He added that such a decision "may cause enormous damage to U.S.-Russian relations," especially if residents of eastern Ukraine are killed by American weapons.

Putin holds emergency meeting

In Moscow, the Kremlin reported Putin held an emergency meeting of his advisory Security Council to discuss the Ukraine situation, in light of his meeting with Merkel and Hollande.

Fighting in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine surged after last week's breakdown of the latest round of peace talks aimed at ending the rebellion.

Watch related report from VOA's Carla Babb:

European, US Leaders in Diplomatic Push for Peace in Ukraine
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