Ukraine, Russia launch crisis talks on gas, insurgency

Ukraine launched delicate dual-track diplomatic negotiations with Russia on Monday aimed at averting a debilitating gas cut and ending a bloody separatist insurgency by the end of the week.

The meetings in Brussels and Kiev throw down an immediate challenge to new Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s European commitment and vow to preserve the territorial integrity of the splintered ex-Soviet state.

The 48-year-old confectionery tycoon and political veteran promised late yesterday to end fighting ‘this week’ in Ukraine’s economically vital eastern rustbelt that has claimed more than 200 lives.
And he affirmed after being sworn in as Ukraine’s fifth president on Saturday that Kiev would sign a historic pact with the European Union that would finally wrest it out of Russia’s orbit. But the eight-week insurgency that Kiev and the West accuse Russia of orchestrating rages unabated.

Ukrainian defence sources told AFP that militants had staged a wave of failed attacks on the international airport in the Russian border city of Lugansk after briefly seizing its counterpart in neighbouring Donetsk late last month. Intense artillery fire and air bombardments also continued in the rebel Donetsk region stronghold of Slavyansk -- an industrial city of 120,000 where many have been sheltering in basements for weeks. The Ukrainian army also said pro-Russian gunmen had taken several of its soldiers prisoner overnight. ‘Some were out in the field, but others were abducted,’ military spokesman Vladyslav Seleznyov wrote in a Facebook post. ‘We are still learning the details of everything that happened.’ The EU-mediated gas talks in Brussels come on the eve of a Russian deadline for Ukraine to cover a debt of nearly USD 4.4 billion or have its shipments end on Wednesday.

About 15 per cent of Europe’s gas from Russia transits through Ukraine -- a dependence that EU nations have been trying to limit ever since suffering similar disruptions in 2006 and 2009.
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