Minsk: Warring parties in Ukraine meet on Friday to try to find a lasting solution to a brutal conflict that has killed around 3,000 people and stoked Western alarm about Russia`s territorial ambitions.
The talks take place in Minsk two weeks since a European-brokered ceasefire aimed at halting five months of bloodshed was agreed in the Belarussian capital with Moscow, Kiev and pro-Russian separatist leaders.
Overall, the truce has dramatically lowered the scale of the fighting across industrial eastern Ukraine, although sometimes deadly shelling and gunfire is reported almost daily around the flashpoint city of Donetsk.
With the crisis at a potentially pivotal point, US President Barack Obama hosted Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko at the White House on Thursday, with both condemning Russian "aggression".
The meeting nevertheless underscored the limits of US support for Kiev in the most serious confrontation between Moscow and the West since the Cold War.Poroshenko sat side-by-side with Obama in the Oval Office and drew multiple standing ovations from lawmakers in a ceremonial joint meeting of both houses of Congress.
But Poroshenko`s appeal for NATO to grant Ukraine non-member ally status to help bolster its defences appeared to make little headway, despite his warning that non-lethal aid like "blankets" can`t win wars.
Poroshenko warned Congress that what he called Russian-backed proxy wars must be contained.
"If they are not stopped now, they will cross European borders and spread throughout the globe," Poroshenko said.
Just hours before he spoke, Kiev accused Moscow of advancing 4,000 troops based in annexed Crimea to the Ukraine border, further rattling nerves.
Obama praised Poroshenko as "the right man for the job" in Ukraine, and endorsed his "difficult" decision to adopt legislation offering self-rule to rebellious eastern districts of Ukraine.
The US leader condemned Russian "aggression" in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, which he said was designed to undermine the country`s territorial integrity and Poroshenko`s efforts to introduce reforms to fix an economy on the brink of bankruptcy.
In his speech to Congress, Poroshenko called on NATO to grant Ukraine special status as well as tougher sanctions on Russia and lethal military aid.
"I urge you not to let Ukraine stand alone," he said.
A senior US official said Washington would offer Ukraine another $46 million in non-lethal aid, mainly for border and military guards.
The United States along with the European Union has hit Russia with a series of sanctions, the latest package targeting its major financial, energy and defence companies.
But Poroshenko did not secure US support for its request for non-NATO member ally status, which Moscow would likely view as a provocation.
The Obama administration also will not heed calls from Congress to send arms to bolster Ukraine`s armed forces, which in the days before the ceasefire suffered major battleground defeats by rebels apparently backed by Russian elite troops.
The conflict has killed almost 2,900 people, and another 298 who lost their lives when a Malaysia Airlines plane was downed over the east in July.
Poroshenko was in Washington two days after parliament in Kiev ratified a historic pact with the EU in a further sign of his determination to take the former Soviet nation on a Western path.Lawmakers also offered three years of limited self-rule to the east and granted amnesty for fighters in legislation drawn up under the September 5 truce.
Russia -- accused by the West of fomenting the crisis by sending in troops and heavy weapons -- has hailed the overture as a step in the right direction.
Separatist leaders have also described it as a positive move while at the same time pledging to fight on for full independence from their foes in Kiev.
Although the ceasefire has largely held, shelling has rocked the main insurgent stronghold of Donetsk almost every night
Donetsk city council reported the death of one civilian Thursday, bringing to 32 the number of residents and Ukrainian servicemen killed since September 5.
There is no information available on rebel casualties.
"We wish we had a ceasefire," said Pavel Krivonosov, a resident of the coalmining village of Vilkivkha about 50 kilometres (30 miles) east of Donetsk.
"Even when you close the door people are scared. Look on the street, there`s nobody outside. In the evening when it`s a bit quieter people go out, and then somewhere the shelling starts again, and they`re hiding in the basement."