Leaders hold Ukraine peace talks as fighting surges

MINSK, (Reuters) – The leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine held peace talks in Belarus deep into the night, while in Ukraine pro-Moscow separatists tightened the pressure on Kiev by launching some of the war’s worst fighting.

Ukraine’s army said yesterday that 19 of its soldiers were killed in pro-Russian separatist assaults near the railway town of Debaltseve, some of the worst losses it has reported in nine months of war.

Rebels who tore up a five-month-old truce in January are trying to encircle government forces in Debaltseve, a strategic location that would let them link up their main strongholds.

Fighting has already killed more than 5,000 people, and Washington is now openly talking of arming Ukraine to defend itself from “Russian aggression”, raising the prospect of a proxy war in the heart of Europe between Cold War foes.

A surge in fighting in the 24 hours before the summit, including a rocket attack that killed 17 people in government-held territory on Tuesday, could be intended to force Ukraine to accept a deal recognising the rebel advance.

The summit was being held in neighbouring Belarus under a Franco-German proposal to try to halt the fighting. Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Francois Hollande held talks with Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko and Russia’s Vladimir Putin that a Ukrainian presidential aide said could continue well into Thursday morning.

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