Mediators seek Ukraine truce as 15 troops killed

Kiev's pro-Western leaders and mediators hoped to reach a "binding" truce with pro-Russian separatists on Saturday despite Ukraine suffering one of its bloodiest days yet in the nine-month conflict with 15 troops killed.

Kiev: Kiev's pro-Western leaders and mediators hoped to reach a "binding" truce with pro-Russian separatists on Saturday despite Ukraine suffering one of its bloodiest days yet in the nine-month conflict with 15 troops killed.

"In the last day, 15 soldiers died and 30 more were wounded. That is the figure for the whole frontline," Defence Minister Stepan Poltorak told journalists.

The death toll is the highest one-day loss for Ukraine's military since the signing in September of a nominal ceasefire deal that has collapsed totally in recent weeks.

Representatives from both sides, as well as mediators from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, were to meet in the Belarussian capital Minsk today for urgent Kremlin-backed talks to agree a new truce.

With the civilian death toll mounting in rebel regions Donetsk and Lugansk, the truce should also provide for the "unrestricted supply of basic goods and humanitarian assistance", the OSCE said.

Kiev said it expected to send its envoy, former president Leonid Kuchma, to Minsk for the latest talks aimed at defusing fighting that has left at least 5,100 people dead.

Separatist negotiators flew into Minsk today, but there was no official word on when the Ukrainian delegation would arrive and when the talks would take place.

Ukraine has insisted on the presence of Donetsk insurgency commander Alexander Zakharchenko and leader of the separatist Lugansk region Igor Plotnitsky at the talks, rather than their representatives.

The insurgents last week pulled out of peace talks and announced the start of an offensive designed to expand their control over a much broader swathe of the industrial southeast.

They said yesterday they would push their offensive "until the entire Donetsk and Lugansk regions are freed" of Ukrainian troops should the talks fail.

At least 24 people were killed in fighting yesterday, with Grad rocket attacks on the separatists' self-proclaimed capital Donetsk continuing late into the night, an AFP correspondent said.

Fighting is raging around the strategic Ukrainian- controlled transport hub of Debaltseve, some 50 kilometres northeast of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk.

The town of 25,000 people was built around a railroad connecting the two rebel centres of the Russian-speaking southeast.

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