- Our Town
Interfax: Ukraine cites support for peace plan
By Nataliya Vasilyeva And Peter Leonard, The Associated Press
MINSK, Belarus - Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said early Wednesday that he has support for a peace plan from leaders who attended a summit meeting in Minsk, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Interfax news agency reported.
But there were no indications that would mean an immediate end to the fighting in eastern Ukraine between pro-Russia separatists and Ukrainian forces in which about 2,000 civilians and more than 700 Ukrainian troops have died.
Putin said separately he had an "overall positive assessment" of Tuesday's meetings, which included face-to-face talks with Poroshenko.
Putin told reporters there was no discussion of a cease-fire in Ukraine because Russia is not a party to the conflict. Moscow is accused by Kyiv and the West of arming and supporting the rebels — a charge the Kremlin denies.
In addition to their one-on-one meeting, Putin and Poroshenko also met in a general session meeting with the presidents of Kazakhstan and Belarus, and top European Union officials.
The meeting in the capital of Belarus came on the same day that Ukraine had said it captured 10 Russian soldiers who had come over the border.
Putin did not directly address the allegation but appeared to tacitly recognize it and suggested that the soldiers simply had become lost.
"Ukrainian soldiers have found themselves on our side, too," he told reporters.
The fighting in eastern Ukraine also had expanded to a new front. The area around the city of Novoazovsk, strategically positioned on roads linking Russia with Crimea, which Moscow annexed in March, has come under heavy artillery firing in the past two days.
Shortly after Poroshenko took office in June, he released a peace plan for the conflict that included an amnesty for those not accused of serious crimes and called for some decentralization of power to the region.
"I can say that the logic of this peaceful plan was finally supported by all, without exclusion, of the heads of state," Interfax quoted him as saying.
Getting the rebels to accept the plan, however, would be a key issue, and Russia appears either unable or unwilling to exert influence on the separatists to end their fight.
The general summit meeting began with a stiff and awkward handshake between Poroshenko and Putin, their first meeting since a brief encounter at a D-Day remembrance ceremony in June.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko told reporters the talks at the summit were "tough," but stopped short of saying that they had failed.
"Sadly, the situation there (in Ukraine) has gone so far that in the absence of agreements in principle, any steps or technical accords are not going to lead to settlement," he said.
Kyiv and many Western countries have repeatedly accused Moscow of providing arms and expertise to the pro-Russian rebels to try to destabilize Ukraine, something Russia has denied.
Poroshenko is under pressure to seek a negotiated settlement and not a military victory. He said the purpose of his visit was to start searching for a political compromise and promised that the interests of Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine would be taken into account.
"The fate of peace and the fate of Europe are being decided in Minsk today," Poroshenko said in his opening remarks.
In his opening statement, Putin argued that Ukraine's decision to sign an association agreement with the 28-nation EU would lead to huge losses for Russia, which would then be forced to protect its economy. Russia had been counting on Ukraine joining a rival economic union it is forming with Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Ukraine is set to ratify the EU association agreement in September.
Putin also said the conflict "could not be solved by further escalation of the military scenario without taking into account the vital interests of the southeast of the country and without a peaceful dialogue of its representatives."
Ukraine wants the rebels to hand back the territory they have captured in eastern Ukraine, while Putin wants to retain some sort of leverage over the mostly Russian-speaking region so Ukraine does not join NATO or the European Union.
Russia has called frequently for Ukraine to federalize — devolving wide powers to the regions from the central government in Kyiv. Poroshenko has resisted that move but he could agree to give the regions some expanded powers. Poroshenko also has spoken against holding a referendum on Ukraine's joining NATO.
Putin has so far ignored requests from the rebels to be annexed by Russia, unlike in March, when he annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. But Associated Press journalists on the border have seen the rebels with a wide range of unmarked military equipment — including tanks, Buk missile launchers and armoured personnel carriers — and have run into many Russians among the rebel fighters.
Ukraine's anti-rebel operation said on its Facebook page that 10 soldiers from a Russian paratrooper division were captured Monday around Amvrosiivka, a town near the Russian border.
Ukraine's posting included videos of five of the men. One, who identified himself as Sergei Smirnov, said they were not told anything about their mission.
"We were just travelling through fields and then we stopped in the middle of the field and the BMP2 (armoured vehicle) broke down," he said.
Asked if he knew they were on Ukrainian territory, he said: "When we got into the village we saw a tank with Ukrainian flag. Then we understood." He said they then came under fire.
Russian news agencies quoted an unidentified official in the Russian Defence Ministry as saying the soldiers were patrolling the border and probably crossed it inadvertently.
Meanwhile, towering columns of smoke rose Tuesday from outside a city in Ukraine's far southeast after what residents said was a heavy artillery barrage, and Ukraine accused the separatists and Russia of trying to expand the conflict.
It was the second straight day that attacks were reported in the vicinity of Novoazovsk, which is in eastern Ukraine's separatist Donetsk region but previously had seen little fighting.
Novoazovsk lies on the Azov Sea on the road that runs from Russia to the major Ukrainian port of Mariupol and west to Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula annexed by Russia.
Ukraine said a small column of Russian tanks and armoured vehicles crossed into Ukraine on Monday north of Novoazovsk, raising the possibility that pro-Russia separatists were aiming to take control of a strip of land that would link up Russia with Crimea.
In Kyiv, Col. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine's National Security Council, blamed the shelling Tuesday on "Russian mercenaries."
"Russia is trying from its side to open a new front," Lysenko told reporters.
Residents in Novoazovsk, some hastily packing up in order to flee, told the AP it was not clear what direction the firing had come from Tuesday.
Lysenko said there were enough forces and equipment in Mariupol to defend the city of more than 450,000. An AP reporter saw excavators digging deep trenches Tuesday on its eastern edge.
Russia reportedly has tens of thousands of troops positioned in areas near the Ukrainian border, leading to persistent concerns that Moscow could be preparing an invasion.
Leonard reported from Novoazovsk, Ukraine. Jim Heintz in Kyiv, Ukraine, Laura Mills and Lynn Berry in Moscow contributed to this report.