Ukraine leaders hold crisis meeting on peace plan

Ukraine`s president and his defence chiefs were to meet Tuesday to review a battered peace accord with pro-Russian rebels, as the insurgents swore in their leaders after controversial polls.

Ukraine leaders hold crisis meeting on peace plan

Kiev: Ukraine`s president and his defence chiefs were to meet Tuesday to review a battered peace accord with pro-Russian rebels, as the insurgents swore in their leaders after controversial polls.

The elections in two unrecognised statelets in eastern Ukraine on Sunday were backed by Russia, but condemned by Ukraine, the United States, EU powers and the head of the United Nations.

Poroshenko said the "pseudo" elections had "torpedoed" a key provision in a September 5 peace deal offering rebels wide autonomy, while preserving Ukraine`s integrity.

The September accord, signed in Minsk, was meant to pave the way for an end to the seven month separatist conflict with a ceasefire and ultimately political settlement.

But Poroshenko said the crisis meeting of his National Security and Defence Council would consider "abolition" of the autonomy offer, a measure at the heart of the whole peace plan.

Constant ceasefire violations have already undermined the truce, with fighting breaking out again Tuesday near the rebel-held city of Donetsk. More than 4,000 people have died in the war, which has sparked the biggest diplomatic crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War.

The defence chiefs meeting was scheduled for 5:00 pm (1500 GMT), the presidency told AFP.In the two rebel enclaves in the east the Kremlin-backed leadership pressed on with giving their self-declared republics the trappings of statehood.

At a swearing in ceremony in Donetsk`s main theatre, separatist chief Alexander Zakharchenko -- a former electrician who was already undisputed rebel commander -- took an oath on a Bible "to serve the people."

In neighbouring Lugansk, Igor Plotnitsky -- a burly ex-Soviet army officer -- was also confirmed as rebel supremo there, Russian media reported.

Zakharchenko, 38, said that he was ready to meet with Poroshenko for discussions but insisted Kiev negotiate with the rebels as equals.

"Ukraine has to understand that the (Donetsk People`s Republic) is already another state," he told Russian radio station Echo of Moscow.

Meanwhile, artillery bombardments started up again outside Donetsk.

"Very heavy firing started from 6:30 this morning," said local resident Tatyana. "It`s hellish."

Ivan, another Donetsk resident, said he feared Poroshenko`s statement signalled the end of the ceasefire. "It`s clear that the fighting will start up again," he said.

Analysts in Ukraine also say a surge in the war could follow.

Zakharchenko has repeatedly stated that his forces intend to capture more territory, including the Black Sea port city of Mariupol.

And large amounts of heavy weaponry and military transport have been spotted moving through rebel-held areas in the last few days, although Russia denies it directly arms or helps the insurgents.The new EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, told The Guardian newspaper on Tuesday that it would be "extremely difficult, if not impossible" to come up with a new peace initiative if September`s Minsk accord collapses.

Although Moscow has not recognised the rebel statelets` independence, its endorsement of the elections` validity added fuel to an already heated row with the West.

The United States followed Europe in hammering Sunday`s rebel polls, which showed Ukraine`s inability to control the eastern region and were conducted without recognised election observers.

"These sham elections contravened Ukraine`s constitution... and the most basic electoral norms," said the White House, while the State Department warned Moscow that recognising the polls "would only serve to isolate it further".

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday also slammed the vote as "unfortunate and counterproductive" and called on all sides to return to the peace plan.

Russia`s announcement that it "respected" the outcome of the rebel polls risks prompting an intensifying of tough EU and US economic sanctions -- or at least new determination to keep the current measures in place.

French President Francois Hollande said sanctions against Russia are "essential... but they should not be the sole response.

"The objective is to convince Moscow and the separatists to renounce escalation and to return to a dialogue."

The separatist uprisings in the pro-Russian corner of Ukraine started shortly after Russia`s troops invaded and annexed Crimea, a southern Ukrainian region, in March.