BERLIN – Foreign ministers from Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France meeting in Berlin agreed Wednesday on a series of steps for a resumption of the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine to de-escalate a conflict that has taken over 400 lives since April.
The steps include reopening talks no later than Saturday “with the goal of reaching an unconditional and mutually agreed sustainable cease-fire” to be monitored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
In the declaration issued after the evening talks, the ministers said they welcomed Russia’s readiness to grant Ukrainian border guards access to Russian territory to take part in controlling two border crossings once the cease-fire is in place.
Fighting in eastern Ukraine has increased since the much-violated 10-day cease-fire expired late Monday. On Wednesday, four Ukrainian troops were killed as government forces carried out more than 100 attacks on rebel positions, a military official said.
National Security and Defence Council spokesman Andriy Lysenko said three troops died in rebel attacks on government vehicles and checkpoints and 10 were wounded. The federal border guards said one guardsman was killed when the Novoazovsk crossing point came under attack by rebels with mortars in the Donetsk region.
Donetsk is one of two eastern regions that have declared independence from the government in Kyiv. Ukrainian officials said pro-Russian rebels had been forced out of three villages.
Border posts have become a key issue, since Ukraine and the United States say military equipment and reinforcements are flowing across the border from Russia. Moscow denies arming the rebels and describes Russian citizens fighting with them as volunteers.
Ukraine said it recaptured a key border post Tuesday at Dovzhanskiy, which rebels had mined with explosives.
Another main border crossing at Izvaryne was closed Wednesday because of fighting and an AP reporter saw plumes of black smoke rising above it. Ukrainian officials said rebels shelled Ukrainian troops in the area and a Ukrainian armoured vehicle was destroyed by a mine.
At the small Sjevernyi border crossing to the north, Ukrainian border guards had abandoned their post, leaving three Russian border guards to process the several dozen Ukrainians who passed through Wednesday afternoon.
Fresh black caterpillar tread marks from two armoured vehicles that had crossed the border were clearly visible on the one-lane road. It was impossible to determine which direction they had travelled, but there have been no reports of armoured vehicles moving from Ukraine into Russia.
Fighting also was underway Wednesday in Luhansk, the other eastern region where separatists have declared independence. In the city of Luhansk, a stray missile hit a school near a rebel position but no injuries were reported.
To the north, a steady, deep rumbling could be heard from shelling near the town of Metalist.
In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she “cannot rule out that we will have to go further” in imposing sanctions on Russia.
The EU and the United States have already imposed targeted sanctions mostly hitting individual officials in Russia and have held off on more costly sanctions on entire industries.
“We will not let up … in seeking diplomatic solutions to the conflict, but we are still far from where we would like to be,” she said after meeting with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, prior to the foreign ministers’ meeting.