SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) Germany’s foreign minister says Ukraine crisis talks in Berlin have ended with agreement on pulling back heavy weapons in eastern Ukraine.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier made the announcement late on January 21 after four hours of talks in Berlin with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, Ukraine’s Pavlo Klimkin and Laurent Fabius of France.
Steinmeier said all sides agreed that pro-Russian fighters and Kyiv’s force should pull back heavy weaponry 15 kilometers from a demarcation line spelled out in last year’s Minsk agreement.
Steinmeier said the agreement represented progress, but “no breakthrough” in efforts to achieve a peace accord for eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists have battled Ukrainian troops for months.
He said it still remained to be seen if what had been agreed in Berlin will change the situation on the ground in eastern Ukraine.
In a joint statement released by the German foreign ministry, the ministers noted “with serious concern” that fighting in eastern Ukraine had severely escalated, causing the loss of many human lives including civilians.
The Berlin talks comes amid reports that pro-Russian separatists have deployed more weapons and fighters to an emerging flashpoint in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine says Moscow-backed rebels have overstepped agreed-upon front-line boundaries between the warring sides by 500 square kilometers.
Addressing the World Economic Forum in Davos, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said 9,000 Russian regular troops were occupying 7 percent of Ukrainian territory.
Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Powers said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s new peace plan for eastern Ukraine is little more than a blueprint for military occupation.
Speaking to the UN Security Council on January 21, Power said “the plan would seek to legitimize territorial gains” made by Moscow-backed rebels.
“Let us pull the veil away from Putin’s peace plan and call it for what it is – a Russian occupation plan,” she said during a special meeting of the 15-member body on Ukraine.
Putin’s spokesman said the proposal called for a cease-fire by government forces and rebels in southeastern Ukraine, and the withdrawal of heavy artillery by both sides.
Moscow said on January 18 that Poroshenko rejected the plan.
Power said “the current situation is dangerous” and urged Russia to implement the Minsk agreement.
Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said Moscow was abiding by the agreement and blamed Kyiv for the fresh violence.
British UN Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant also criticized Moscow, citing “the usual pattern of Russian denials and misinformation.”
He also called on Moscow to stop using humanitarian convoys to supply rebels with arms.
On the ground, AP reported pro-Russian rebels were advancing in an area northwest of Luhansk, the second-largest rebel-held city.
The fighting is reported to be centered on two checkpoints along a key highway.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said one of those positions — Checkpoint 31 — had been abandoned but that operations were under way to recapture it.
An AP reporter saw nine Gvozdika self-propelled howitzers and six anti-tank cannons moving near the town of Perevalsk on January 21.
A rebel militiaman with the convoy said the armament was heading in the direction of Checkpoint 31.
Along the same road, the AP saw four Grad multiple rocket launchers accompanied by four trucks carrying ammunition and 15 tanks, also heading toward the checkpoint.
There were also signs the rebels were advancing elsewhere.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington was concerned that the separatists were attacking the town of Debaltseve, about 70 kilometers east of Donetsk.
Kerry called it a “very blatant land grab.”
Speaking during a visit to Kyiv, U.S. Army Europe commander Lt. Gen Ben Hodges said the quantity of Russian military hardware being supplied to separatists had doubled between the Minsk agreement in September and December.
“It is irrefutable that they are getting direct support from Russia,” Hodges said, citing the scale and sophistication of the weapons now in the hands of the rebels.