Ukraine, rebels try to revive stalled peace talks
Kiev (AFP) - Ukrainian and pro-Russian rebel leaders tried on Friday to revive peace talks that stalled after just one round due to stark difference over how to end the eight-month separatist war.
A tense meeting mediated by European and Russian envoys in the Belarussian capital Minsk on Wednesday was due to have been followed by a final one on Friday at which a comprehensive peace accord was signed.
But Wednesday's session broke up after more than five hours with a deal reached on only the least contentious of the four agenda points: a prisoner swap that will involve 225 guerrillas and 150 Ukrainian troops.
Smaller such exchanges have been frequent and often involved dozens of men.
Yet they appear to have built far less trust between the warring parties than Ukraine's Western allies would have hoped.
Belarussian foreign ministry said spokesman Dmitry Mironchik told AFP by telephone that "there will be no contact group meeting today".
And an aide to one of the two rebels at Wednesday's negotiations said he was heading back to the separatist east Ukranian region of Donetsk because there appeared to be little point in staying in Minsk.
But a senior Ukranian source told AFP there was still a chance that a Minsk meeting could be arranged for Friday if more preliminary consultations were held.
- 'Incompetent and uninformed' -
The talks were meant to reinforce two September deals that aimed both to end one of Europe's bloodiest conflicts in decades and to preserve Ukraine as a single nation in which Russian-border regions enjoyed more self-control.
Yet little of what was agreed nearly four months ago has been achieved.
The heavily-Russified industrial regions of Lugansk and Donetsk staged their own leadership polls in November that infuriated Kiev and dampened early glimmers of hope of a political settlement being reached soon.
And insubordinate field commanders from both sides continued ignoring the formal truce declaration and waged battles that killed 1,300 more people.
UN officials fear that their total toll of 4,700 deaths may be too conservative because militias have been hiding their losses and denying outsiders access to their burial sites.
The most difficult task facing European mediators is finding a way for the sides to begin pulling back their tanks so that a 30-kilometre (18-mile) buffer zone could be established across the war zone.
The insurgents are currently most interested in seeing the resumption of social welfare payments that Kiev suspended last month out of fear that they were being used to finance the revolt.
Accounts of Wednesday's meeting suggest that the teams cannot even agree what issues they should be discussing in the first place.
A source close to Kiev's position at the table called the rebel negotiators "absolutely incompetent people who are not responsible for making decisions and are uninformed about past agreements".
The source stressed to Interfax-Ukraine that "if we continue, it should only be in order to sign the Minsk (deals) and to develop them further -- and not to revise them, which is what the Donetsk and Lugansk representatives tried to do."
Both the European and Russian mediators have so far kept an official silence and let the two foes try to find common ground.
Donetsk negotiator Denis Pushilin said contacts between the sides made by Skype video conference on Thursday saw everyone attempt to rescue the teetering process.
"We agreed on Thursday to come up with a joint statement for the Minsk meeting and we sent out our proposals," Pushilin said in a statement.
"But we have yet to receive either a response to our draft statement or an invitation to Minsk."