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Diplomatic Scramble on Ukraine Conflict Continues, as Trapped Civilians See Chance to Flee

France and Germany's leaders are due to meet Vladimir Putin in Moscow today, as a humanitarian corridor is opened for the citizens of Debaltseve to escape escalating violence in eastern Ukraine.

by Harriet Salem
Feb 6 2015, 2:00pm

Photo by Petr David Josek/AP

Eleventh-hour talks to establish a new green line peace deal in a bid to halt escalating violence in Ukraine's east got under way in Kiev on Thursday, as Angela Merkel and François Hollande flew into the capital for emergency talks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

"We have decided to take a new initiative," Hollande told a news conference on Thursday. "We will make a new proposal to solve the conflict which will be based on Ukraine's territorial integrity".

Following their meeting in Kiev the German and French leaders are scheduled to travel to Moscow today to take the new peace proposition to Vladimir Putin.

According to Russian daily newspaper Kommersant, the proposed deal will likely involve further concessions by Ukraine including relinquishing territory gained by pro-Russia rebel forces during their latest offensive.

The bid to open a new channel of diplomatic talks comes as fierce fighting continues to rage across the frontlines after repeated attempts to broker a peace deal in Minsk finally collapsed on Saturday. On that occasion, both sides reportedly walked away from the negotiating table in under four hours.

Pressure on Kiev and its Western allies to find a solution to the violence has mounted as Ukraine's currency took another hard hit. The hyrvnia lost 33 percent of its value on Thursday, a day after the central bank halted daily auctions at which it sells its hard currency to banks.

Kiev, nearly bankrupt, is attempting to negotiate a bailout from the International Monetary Fund but securing a loan is likely impossible whilst hostilities continue in the country's east.

Over the last two weeks, pro-Russia separatists have launched a fresh offensive on Ukrainian forces, focusing their efforts on the "Debaltseve pocket" — a government-held enclave jutting into rebel-held territory.

On Friday morning it was announced that Ukrainian authorities and rebel forces have agreed to open a humanitarian corridor to evacuate civilians from Debaltseve.

Eduard Basurin, a spokesman for the separatist "Donetsk People's Republic," said about 1,000 people were expected to leave the area today.

So far thousands of civilians have been caught in the fight for the strategically important rail hub, which had a pre-war population of around 25,000. The rebel forces have advanced on government positions, reportedly taking the nearby villages Uglegorsk and Vuhlehirsk, which are both less than six miles from Debaltseve.

Throughout the week desperate locals trying to flee the town lined up for spaces on buses, minivans, and lorries in a volunteer-led evacuation effort via a treacherous road to the west that came under regular artillery fire. For the hundreds of civilians still trapped in Debaltseve, life is now largely confined to basements without gas or electricity.

The artillery war being fought in Ukraine's east has also intensified on the other side of the front with heavy shelling hitting the separatist stronghold Donetsk and nearby Gorlovka in recent weeks.

Cut off from centralized social welfare payments and banking system for several months now, at least one in 10 people in the rebel-held territories are now dependent on humanitarian aid handouts. A recent report by UNICEF found that more than 1,000 children in Donetsk are regularly seeking refuge in bomb shelters.

According to the UN, more than 5,300 people have been killed in the fighting since the conflict began in April 2014 and a further 1.2 million have been forced to flee their homes.

Yet despite the ongoing clashes, as the situation currently stands both sides appear relatively evenly matched, sparking fears of a protracted and bloody conflict if a political solution cannot be reached.

Battles for small pockets of land such as Debaltseve and Donetsk airport have taken months, and neither side has managed to take a substantially sized city by military force since last summer.

On Wednesday, Ukraine's foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin said that government forces had "enough Kalashnikovs," but that there was a desperate need for equipment required for "modern warfare" including communications equipment and radar.

Alexsey Shevchenko is a founder of Army SOS, an NGO supporting Ukraine's military by providing uniforms, tents and other basic kit. He told VICE News that the country "desperately needs the help and support of the US and West."

"By this I mean financial support and military equipment without which we cannot win this war," Shevchenko added.

However in a separate visit to Kiev, also on Thursday, US Foreign Secretary John Kerry seemed to rule out the possibility of arming Ukraine with weapons and military hardware. Speaking at a news conference in the capital Kerry pledged a further $16.5 million in aid to go directly to those affected by the conflict in the east. Yet he also said that the US was "not interested in a proxy war" with Russia and he had "no illusion that there is a military solution" to the conflict.

So far Western support to Ukraine has been limited to non-lethal aid, including items such as night vision goggles, body armor, and food rations for soldiers.

Moscow has persistently eschewed allegations of fueling the conflict despite multiple reports of a steady flow of arms and fighters crossing Ukraine's porous border with its neighbor. In response to Russia's denial of its involvement in the conflict, on Thursday Ukraine's bespectacled Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk quipped: "If they need I can lend them my glasses."

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem