Ukraine fighting rages on after Putin, Poroshenko praise summit

KIEV, Ukraine — Fighting in eastern Ukraine between government forces and pro-Russian rebels raged on after the Russian and Ukrainian presidents hailed as "positive" talks Tuesday night on ending the conflict.

Ukraine's military said Wednesday that its forces killed 225 rebels and destroyed three tanks during the past 24 hours. Thirteen government soldiers were killed and 36 wounded, a military spokesman, Andriy Lysenko, said at a briefing in Kiev, reporting intensified fighting near the Sea of Azov close to the Russian frontier.

Russian President Vladimir Putin met his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, at a summit in Minsk, Belarus. Ukraine blames its neighbor for stoking the insurgency in the east with manpower and weapons, an allegation Russia denies. Five months of unrest and more than 2,000 deaths have sparked the worst standoff between Russia and its former Cold War foes in two decades and unleashed sanctions on both sides.

"Any dialogue is a good thing, and they've agreed to additional meetings," Yevgeny Minchenko, head of the Moscow- based International Institute for Political Expertise, said by phone. "However, it's difficult to imagine any deal could be made in the current environment."

Ukrainian government forces are being shelled "intensively" from Russian territory and are under constant attack from insurgents around Mariupol and Novoazovsk on the Sea of Azov coast, south of the rebel strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk, Lysenko said. Russian and separatist forces occupied seven villages north of Novoazovsk, he said.

Government troops are also fighting to maintain control of Ilovaysk, east of Donetsk, and two other towns, the military press service said on Facebook. There was no independent confirmation of the military figures for separatist deaths.

"Regular Russian units are operating in eastern Ukraine," Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk told parliament in Warsaw Wednesday, citing information from the country's intelligence services and NATO.

"Russia, for its part, will do everything for this peace process," Putin said in Minsk early Wednesday. "In our opinion, it should start as soon as possible."

Poroshenko said on Twitter after the talks that Russia backed a Ukrainian peace strategy to stem fighting between the army and pro-Russian insurgents in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions. While Putin didn't mention the proposal, Poroshenko told reporters a "road map" would be drawn up and a three-way contact group involving the European Union would work toward a truce.

Speaking to German Chancellor Angela Merkel by phone Wednesday, Poroshenko spoke of a "positive signal" from the Minsk meeting, according to the president's website.

"Although breakthrough agreements are still some time away, we expect to see more progress in the political, military and economic/trade areas in the next few weeks," Vladimir Tikhomirov, the chief economist at BCS Financial Group in Moscow, said in a note to investors. "With the negotiation process now started, a new wave of Russia-West confrontations has become less likely — indeed, both sides clearly seem to be looking for an acceptable way to de-escalate relations and to end the crisis."

Putin said that no talks were held on conditions for a cease-fire in Ukraine because Russia isn't a party to the conflict. Even so, Russia's concerns "were heard" in Minsk and a working group will intensify efforts to stem the crisis, he said.

The Russian leader said he expects an agreement on further humanitarian supplies to Ukraine, which was angered by what it said was an unauthorized aid convoy of hundreds of Russian trucks to Luhansk last week.

Poroshenko told reporters that attempts would be made to hold talks about a cease-fire "as soon as possible" though a trilateral contact group involving Ukraine, Russia and the EU. A truce would then be monitored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, he said.

Still, "Ukrainian public opinion is not ready for the compromises any political deal would require" as "emotions are running too high," Minchenko said. "Putin is an autonomous actor, and Russia will follow whatever decision he makes. Poroshenko has many more groups he needs to answer to, which makes giving concessions much more difficult."

Contributors: Daryna Krasnolutska in Kiev, Dorota Bartyzel and Piotr Skolimowski in Warsaw, Aliaksandr Kudrytski in Minsk, Belarus and Ilya Arkhipov in Moscow.

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