A KEY round of peace talks between Ukraine’s government and pro-Russian rebels, due to take place in Minsk yesterday, was called off.
No immediate reason was given by the Belarusian foreign ministry.
The talks had begun on Christmas Eve to try to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has so far left 4,700 dead.
A ceasefire and framework peace deal were announced in Minsk in September but neither has been properly observed. The latest talks also included Russia and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
Yesterday’s round had been expected to tackle issues such as the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front line, the exchange of prisoners and ending the economic blockade of rebel-held areas by the Ukraine under president Petro Poroshenko.
Speaking yesterday, Belarusian foreign ministry spokesman Dmitry Mironchik said: “There will be no contact group meeting today,” but he added that “Belarus is always ready to offer [Minsk] as a negotiations venue”.
Wednesday’s talks focused on troop withdrawals and aid, although no details of any progress emerged. A day earlier, Ukraine’s parliament had voted to work towards membership of Nato – a move heavily criticised by Russia.
Russia’s deputy defence minister Anatoly Antonov accused Nato members of “trying to turn Ukraine into a front line of confrontation with Russia”.
Since the conflict began in eastern Ukraine in April, 4,707 people have lost their lives, according to the UN. Of that number, 1,357 have died since the 5 September ceasefire was agreed.
Pro-Russian separatists took over the two eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk after Moscow annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in March, in a move not recognised by Ukraine and its allies. Ukrainian forces and volunteers then mounted a military operation to recover the areas.
The latest attempt at a ceasefire began on 9 December but sporadic violence has continued in both regions.
Denis Pushilin, an envoy to the talks from the rebels’ self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, commented on the talks earlier this week.
He said: “The meeting took a fairly long time, and the atmosphere was tense. It was a preparatory meeting, and only after the next meeting would we be able to talk about the results.”
Ukraine military spokesman Colonel Andriy Lysenko said negotiations are continuing but are “not being made public because there are no specific results just yet”.
The Ukrainian State Security Service said a swap of prisoners might commence in days, although a spokeswoman for the agency said: “We hope that the deal won’t fall apart.”
The two sides will exchange several hundred prisoners, said Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, according to a report from the Russian news agency Interfax.
While a swap does mark some progress, officials said both sides would still be holding hundreds more prisoners, and a spokeswoman for the Ukraine Security Service repeated that it favored an “all-for-all” exchange.
The two sides said they had not agreed on a date for the next meeting, but hoped it would be soon. Though the truce announced in September has largely been a failure, an agreed-upon “day of silence” on 9 December helped reduce fighting, even though Kiev reported sporadic artillery fire.
The daily toll of casualties has slowed to a trickle recently, Col Lysenko said at a briefing on Christmas Day, with just one Ukrainian serviceman wounded in the previous 24 hours.
Meanwhile, friction persists between Kiev and Moscow over the Crimean peninsula. The peninsula, which relies on electricity from Ukraine, suffered a blackout for several hours on Christmas Eve, after Ukraine shut down power from the mainland.
Ukraine’s energy minister said the country’s electricity grid has suffered a deficit in recent weeks, and halted supplies to Crimea because it was using more than had been agreed.
Power delivery was back to normal in a few hours, he said.