Kiev presses on with offensive against rebels in eastern Ukraine

Russia and European nations on Tuesday wrangled over the format of Ukrainian peace talks even as Kiev pressed on with armed suppression of anti-government protesters in eastern Ukraine.

The crisis in Ukraine dominated a Council of Europe meeting in Vienna that demonstrated a shift in the stand of Europeans in favour of halting escalating bloodshed in Ukrainian south-eastern regions.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned that Ukraine was close to war following deadly clashes in Odessa last week in which dozens died.

“The bloody pictures from Odessa have shown us that we are just a few steps away from a military confrontation,” Mr. Steinmeier said in interviews published on Tuesday simultaneously in Europe’s four leading papers.

Germany’s view of the situation in Ukraine was in sharp contrast with the stand taken by the United States, which has strongly supported Kiev’s military crackdown on the protests in the southeast.

“I’m convinced we are struggling against a situation that has taken on a dynamic of its own. There are groups in eastern Ukraine that are not listening to either Kiev ... or Moscow,” the German Foreign Minister said.

Mr. Steinmeier proposed holding another round of four-way Geneva talks between Russia, the U.S., the European Union and Ukraine, who first met in April.

However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that any new round of talks in Geneva should include representatives of protesters telling reporters that otherwise the talks “would go round in circles.”

The main task today is to “bring all sides to the negotiating table,” Mr. Lavrov said.

The Russian and German Foreign Ministers met for one-to-one talks later on Tuesday in Vienna.

The Ukrainian Parliament on Tuesday turned down a proposal to hold a referendum on decentralisation of power to the regions. Instead, Kiev plans to conduct a non-binding “survey” on this issue, to coincide with presidential elections scheduled for May 25.

The crisis in Ukraine has sharply escalated in recent days. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on Tuesday that four soldiers and about 30 rebels had been killed in fierce fighting near Sloviansk on Monday.

Self-defence forces in Sloviansk confirmed suffering heavy losses. Rebel intelligence reported a large column of Ukrainian tanks and other armoured vehicles moving towards Sloviansk on Tuesday.

Several opposition politicians accused Ukrainian authorities of concealing the true figure of casualties in Friday’s violence in Odessa.

According to official reports, 46 people died in clashes, but Oleg Tsaryov, a presidential candidate, said “no less than 100, and probably far more” had died.

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