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Ukraine eyes ceasefire extension after diplomatic push

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Ukraine looked primed to extend a shaky truce in the conflict-hit east of the country after frantic talks involving the leaders of Russia, France and Germany as a ceasefire deadline neared.

Ukraine's new President Petro Poroshenko and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin agreed to work on "the adoption of an agreement on a bilateral ceasefire between Ukrainian authorities and separatists" following four-way phone talks with Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel, the French presidency said.

The deadline for the current truce runs out at 1900 GMT on Monday but violence has rumbled on regardless with no end in sight to months of fighting that has claimed some 450 lives.

The Kremlin put a slightly different spin on the discussion, saying only that Putin had "stressed the importance of extending a ceasefire as well as creating a reliable mechanism to control the observance of the truce with an active role of the OSCE."

The statement added that "the leaders spoke out in favour of organising a third round of consultations between representatives of Kiev and southeastern regions" following two inconclusive attempts at dialogue.

The Kremlin said that the foreign ministers from the four countries would hold urgent consultations to work out practicalities, while the French statement said Ukraine and Russia's top diplomats would talk by phone later Monday.

There was no immediate reaction from Kiev or the separatists but Ukraine's national security council has pledged to take a decision on whether to extend the ceasefire before it expires.

A senior rebel official told Russia's Interfax news agency earlier Monday that a fresh round of indirect talks -- involving a Kremlin envoy and former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma -- could be held Tuesday.

Prior to Monday's teleconference -- the second in two days between the four leaders -- Hollande and Merkel reiterated a warning from the European Union that it could slap more sanctions on Moscow if Putin does not explicitly pressure pro-Kremlin rebels to stop fighting.

- Compromise still distant -

Both Moscow and Europe have been pushing for the ceasefire to be extended, arguing that it is a vital first step towards ending the fighting in Ukraine.

On the ground though, the supposed truce has done little to stem the violence with both sides accusing each other of carrying on firing.

On Monday Russian state TV station Channel One said that its cameraman Anatoly Klyan, 68, died after being shot in the stomach by Ukrainian troops while on an overnight reporting trip with insurgents at a military base near the rebel-controlled city of Donetsk.

Russia's foreign ministry said the death showed that Ukrainian forces "clearly do not want a de-escalation in the armed conflict in the east."

Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces said that attacks by the insurgents over the weekend killed five of its soldiers.

Poroshenko is coming under growing public pressure to launch a full-scale assault, with some 500 people protesting against the ceasefire outside his office on Sunday.

"We have to declare martial law in the east and clean out the region as quickly as possible," Igor, an ex-soldier who has volunteered to fight the insurgents, told AFP.

Poroshenko refuses to meet rebel commanders who have "blood on their hands" and has suggested he may restart large-scale military operations if the rebels refuse to disarm.

Separatist leaders say they will not engage in direct negotiations with Kiev until government forces withdraw from the heavily Russified east.

Over the past few days the rebels have tightened their grip in the region by forcing a string of pro-government military bases around Donetsk to surrender.

- Threat of broader sanctions -

Last week Poroshenko put his name to a historic trade deal with Europe that ruptured Kiev's historic ties with Moscow.

Kiev and its Western allies accuse Russia of both arming and funding the militias in a bid to unsettle the new Ukrainian government as revenge for the February ouster of a pro-Kremlin president who had ditched the very EU agreement Poroshenko signed on Friday.

The EU warned Putin he had until Monday to act to rein in the rebels or risk broader economic sanctions that could cut off whole sectors of the Russian economy from the 28-nation bloc's 500 million consumers.

Wider sanctions could push the Russian economy into recession with the International Monetary Fund already warning of negligible growth.

Russian and EU ministers have tentatively agreed to meet on July 11 to discuss how Moscow's concerns over the EU agreement with Kiev.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/131127/afptv-advisory-1600-gmt