Ukraine peace talks end in mutual accusations

Peace talks on Ukraine collapsed on Saturday after just over four hours with no tangible progress towards a new ceasefire but with Ukraine's representative and separatist envoys angrily accusing each other of sabotaging the meeting.

Both sides decry 'ultimatums' as civilians flee artillery duels raging in the east

An Ukrainian serviceman patrols near Debaltseve, Ukraine, last month. The area has been caught up in intense fighting between the government and Russian-backed rebels. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

Peace talks on Ukraine collapsed on Saturday after just over four hours with no tangible progress towards a new ceasefire but with Ukraine's representative and separatist envoys angrily accusing each other of sabotaging the meeting.

Ukraine's representative, former president Leonid Kuchma, left the talks in Minsk, Belarus, telling Interfax news agency that separatist officials had undermined the meeting by making ultimatums and refusing "to discuss a plan of measures for a quick ceasefire and a pull-back of heavy weapons."

Denis Pushilin, one of the separatist officials, told the Russian news agency RIA that they were ready for dialogue "but not ready for ultimatums from Kyiv while shelling by their forces is going on in the background of towns in the Donbass [industrialized eastern Ukraine]."

The meeting of the "contact group," which also involves a Russian envoy and an official from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, took place in the Belarussian capital even as fighting between Kyiv's forces and the Russian-backed rebels raged in Ukraine's east, claiming more civilian and military lives.

The outcome dashed hopes that a new ceasefire could be put together soon to stem nine months of conflict pitting Ukrainian government forces against Russian-backed separatists who have declared "people's republics" in eastern Ukraine.

In a conference call shortly before the Minsk talks broke up, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President François Hollande and Russia's Vladimir Putin had expressed hope the meeting would at least produce a ceasefire agreement.

More than 5,000 people have died since the conflict erupted last April following Russia's annexation of Crimea in response to the ousting of a Moscow-backed president in Kyiv by street protests.

The conflict has produced the gravest crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War with the United States and the European Union imposing sanctions on Moscow because of what they say is incontrovertible proof that it is providing arms and men in support of the separatists.

Moscow has denied the accusations.

Rebels skip meeting

Kuchma also reproached the two main separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine, who signed key agreements in Minsk last September, for failing to attend Saturday's follow-up meeting of the "contact group." He said Kyiv remained adamant that it wanted the separatists to honour agreements made in Minsk last September for a ceasefire as part of a 12-point blueprint for peace.

Much-violated from the start, that truce collapsed completely with a new rebel advance last week.

Interfax quoted Kuchma as saying he awaited to hear Russia's reaction to the outcome soon.

The September Minsk peace plan also called for tighter control of the joint Russia-Ukraine border, through which Kyiv says Moscow is funnelling fighters and equipment, and the freeing of prisoners held by the sides.

Much has changed on the ground since the September peace plan.

The separatists have set up self-proclaimed "peoples' republics," while their forces, which Kyiv says are supported by 9,000 Russian regular troops, have seized more than 500 square kilometres of territory beyond that agreed in the Minsk talks and threaten to seize control of the east's two main regions entirely.

Separatist forces have consistently deployed vast quantities of powerful weapons, which they say they have taken from the Ukrainian military. However, some of that weaponry is not even known to be in Ukraine's possession, military experts say.

Both sides have accused each other of deadly artillery and mortar strikes on civilian targets in the past two weeks, including on a cultural centre in the main regional city of Donetsk on Friday that killed at least five people waiting for humanitarian hand-outs.

Heavy shelling

Heavy shelling continued on Saturday in Ukraine's eastern regions as the separatists sought to tighten a circle around government forces clinging on to control of the strategic rail and road junction of Debaltseve. Regional police Chief Vyacheslav Abroskin, in a Facebook post, said 12 civilians had been killed on Saturday by separatist artillery shelling of the town, which lies to the northeast of Donetsk.

Defence Minister Stepan Poltorak said 15 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed and 30 wounded in clashes across the east. Debaltseve is on the main highway linking Donetsk and the other big rebel-controlled city of Luhansk, and is also a vital rail link for goods traffic from Russia which Kyiv accuses of arming the rebels.

People board a bus to leave the town of Debaltseve, where fighting between government and Russian-backed separatist forces has intensified. (Petr David Josek/Associated Press)

Leaving Debaltseve carries its own risks because of the encroachment of separatist forces on all sides. Roads running west and east are controlled by rebels, leaving the northbound road the only remaining corridor of relative safety. But fresh, scorched shell craters alongside that road testify that it is dangerous too.

Fighting inched toward Debaltseve this week when separatists burst through government lines to occupy part of the town of Vuhlehirsk.

The towns are separated by 13 kilometres of road and railroad. When Ukrainian troops were overrun by formidably armed rebel attackers Thursday, some soldiers were forced to retreat to their positions in Debaltseve on foot.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said on Saturday that 1,000 residents have been evacuated in the past days from Debaltseve. But the number of crammed civilian vehicles seen speeding out of the town's rutted, icy roads over the past few days suggests official figures may be on the conservative side.

with files from The Associated Press