Merkel leads last chance Ukraine peace drive

Merkel leads last chance Ukraine peace drive
German Chancellor Angela Merkel looks on during a meeting with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko (not pictured) at the 51st Munich Security Conference at the 'Bayerischer Hof' hotel in Munich February 7, 2015.

MUNICH, Germany - German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday pushed a new peace bid to end the Ukraine conflict, warning that sending weapons to government forces fighting pro-Russian rebels would not stop the bloodshed.

Fresh from overnight talks in Moscow with French President Francois Hollande to thrash out a new peace plan, Merkel said success was far from assured but it was essential to try.

"It is uncertain whether it will lead to success but from my point of view and that of the French president it is definitely worth trying," she told the Munich Security Conference (MSC).

"I believe we owe that much to those who are affected in Ukraine." Europe had had enough of war, the chancellor said, blaming Russia for breaching the international norms which had preserved peace in Europe for so many years.

Hollande for his part said that the Franco-German plan was "one of the last chances" to stop the 10-month-old conflict that has claimed some 5,400 lives.

"If we fail to find a lasting peace agreement, we know the scenario perfectly well - it has a name, it is called war," he said.

Time is pressing to find a solution to the crisis before it turns into a major East-West confrontation, as recent gains by the Russian-backed and increasingly well-armed rebels drive calls for the West to supply weapons to Kiev.

Supporters in Washington argue Western sanctions have failed to get Russia to reverse course in a conflict, so the time has come to take the gloves off.

But Merkel rejected that idea outright as dangerously unrealistic and unlikely to impress Putin.

"I can't conceive of a situation where better armaments for the Ukrainian army so impress President Putin that he believes he will militarily lose. I have to be that blunt," she said.

"I am of the firm conviction that there is no military solution to the conflict." Merkel was due later Saturday to meet US Secretary of State John Kerry, his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko and US Vice-President Joe Biden.

The meetings on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference will focus on a new blueprint agreed in overnight talks in Moscow between President Vladimir Putin, Merkel and Hollande.

Reviving Minsk peace accords

No details were released of the Moscow talks Friday but the new plan is likely to be based on the failed September Minsk ceasefire and peace accords which the West says Moscow never lived up to despite signing them.

"Work is under way to prepare the text of a possible joint document to implement the Minsk agreements," Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, describing the Moscow talks as "substantial and constructive." Putin, Merkel and Hollande were to discuss the plan again with Poroshenko by telephone on Sunday.

On Friday in Brussels, Biden said Ukraine was battling for its very survival and had to be supported.

"Russia cannot be allowed to redraw the map of Europe," he warned.

Fresh attacks reported

The West and Kiev accuse Russia of sending troops and sophisticated weapons across the border to help the rebels but Moscow rejects the charge and says it is not a party to the conflict.

Fighting across the conflict zone in east Ukraine claimed the lives of five civilians in the past 24 hours, government and rebel officials said Friday.

After a limited truce to allow civilians to escape the fighting offered some hope on Friday, the Ukraine government said missiles hit the embattled town of Debaltseve on Saturday.

"In Debaltseve since 6:00 am this morning rebels have been firing Grad rockets," Kiev-loyal regional police chief Vyacheslav Abroskin said.

Ukraine's military had previously said that a temporary ceasefire that saw shelling of the beleaguered town halt for several hours Friday could be extended into Saturday.

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