Merkel plays down Ukraine peace hopes ahead of Moscow trip

German Chancellor Angela Merkel played down hopes of a rapid end to surging violence in Ukraine on Friday before flying to Moscow with French President Francois Hollande in a new truce bid.

AFP| Updated: Feb 06, 2015, 20:00 PM IST

Moscow: German Chancellor Angela Merkel played down hopes of a rapid end to surging violence in Ukraine on Friday before flying to Moscow with French President Francois Hollande in a new truce bid.

"We know that it is completely open as to whether we`ll succeed in achieving a ceasefire through these talks," Merkel told reporters in Berlin, saying the surprise initiative to be put to Russian President Vladimir Putin was aimed at defending "European peace".

"We don`t know whether that will succeed today, whether perhaps further talks on it are necessary," she said.

Merkel said that through their visits to Kiev on Thursday and the imminent trip to Moscow, she and Hollande were seeking a quick end to the bloodshed and to revive the widely flouted truce accord agreed in Minsk last September.

Merkel and Hollande`s Kiev visit was part of the biggest push yet to resolve the 10-month conflict, with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko saying their talks raised "hope for a ceasefire".

European Union officials said Thursday that the bloc will blacklist more Russian individuals over Ukraine, and it is hoped that the possibility that broader sanctions could be toughened up will encourage Russia to agree to a peace deal.As fears have soared of an escalation in the conflict and concern over possible divisions between the United States and Europe on whether to supply arms to Kiev, US Vice President Joe Biden said Ukraine was battling for survival in the face of escalating Russian military involvement.

"We, the US and Europe as a whole, have to stand with Ukraine at this moment," Biden said in Brussels. "Ukraine is fighting for their very survival right now."

Hollande said they were heading to Moscow to "seek a deal" with Putin -- who the West sees as the mastermind behind Ukraine`s pro-Moscow rebellion -- that would help end the crisis in the long-term.

"Everyone is aware that the first step must be a ceasefire, but that is not enough and there must be a comprehensive settlement," Hollande told reporters ahead of his departure.

The frantic high-level diplomacy to end the worst East-West crisis since the end of the Cold War came as US Secretary of State John Kerry also visited Kiev on Thursday and Washington mulled whether to supply arms to the Ukraine army.

"President Putin can make the choices that could end this war," Kerry said, voicing support for the "helpful" Franco-German plan to be put to the Russian leader on Friday.

As pressure grows for a peaceful resolution to the conflict that has killed over 5,300 people, rebel and Ukranian forces on the ground agreed a ceasefire for several hours Friday around the battleground town of Debaltseve to allow civilians to leave, both sides said. An AFP journalist in government-held Debaltseve said some 25 city buses sent by both the rebels and Kiev drove into the shattered town to take civilians out to their respective territories.

The sound of sporadic shelling could be heard in the distance but mortar bombardments in the town itself had halted after days of fierce fighting.

Hundreds of civilians have been killed over recent weeks in east Ukraine as fighting spiralled after insurgents ignored an earlier truce deal and pushed into government-held territory.

No confirmed details have emerged of what exactly the new European peace proposal contains and there is much disquiet in Kiev after the collapse of the previous peace deal.

Kerry said that the plan is a "counter-proposal" made by Merkel and Hollande to suggestions made earlier this week by Putin. The European plan was then presented to the US and Ukraine for their input Wednesday.

A Western diplomat earlier dismissed Putin`s proposals as a "cynical effort" by Moscow to renege on an earlier deal signed in Minsk in September. After meeting with Kerry, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk suggested that Russia should just stick to the widely flouted truce accord agreed in Minsk.

"To have a new deal, not to execute the previous one, seems to me a trap," Yatsenyuk told journalists.

Yatsenyuk warned that the Russian strongman could be seeking to "split the unity between the EU and the US".

Russia, accused by the West of arming the separatists, warned that any US move to send weapons to Ukraine would cause "colossal damage" to ties, foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said.

One civilian and two soldiers were killed Friday and 25 wounded in fighting over the past 24 hours, a government official said.