European diplomats gathered in Paris on Tuesday in an attempt to rescue the battered peace plan for Ukraine but failed to agree on any censure of the warring factions that have continued to fight in spite of the truce proclaimed nearly two weeks ago.
The foreign ministers of Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia met at the French Foreign Ministry for three hours before adjourning and conveying conflicting assessments of their progress to journalists.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called the session "difficult," an apparent reference to the diplomats' disagreement over whether they should blame either the pro-Russia separatists or the Ukrainian government forces for violating the cease-fire that was reached Feb. 12 and supposed to take effect three days later.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whose country is accused by Ukraine and its Western allies of fueling the eastern Ukraine conflict with steady infusions of weapons and fighters, said the Paris gathering was "useful." He added that the four ministers had agreed to pursue expansion of the cease-fire monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
That mission, comprising more than 300 monitors from among the 57 member countries, including both Russia and Ukraine, has been stymied in its attempts to document cease-fire violations and irregular military activity by the frequent roadblocks thrown up by the combatants.
The most blatant cease-fire violations since the peace plan was signed in the Belarus capital of Minsk occurred in the fight for the strategic railroad junction in the town of Debaltseve, which the Russian-backed rebels seized last week after a monthlong offensive that left dozens dead.
"The situation in Debaltseve has been discussed and particular attention has been given to the situation in the region of Mariupol," the four foreign ministers said in a statement, the latter referring to the Sea of Azov port that the separatists are known to covet. Mariupol is a steelmaking city of 500,000 that lies along the 200-mile coastal road between the Russian border and Ukraine's Crimean peninsula, which Russia seized and annexed last year.
The ministers took no action other than to issue a statement calling on all parties to abide by the peace plan, which set out a deadline for the combatants to withdraw heavy weaponry that has already been missed.
A separatist official from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, Eduard Basurin, told a local news website that the rebels had moved howitzers back from the front line, and the Associated Press reported seeing some of the guns moving along the roads out of Donetsk.
But a spokesman for Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council told reporters in Kiev that the separatists were "just regrouping their gangs and relocating their weapons." The spokesman, Col. Andriy Lysenko, said Ukrainian forces won't withdraw their tanks and artillery until they see genuine compliance by the separatists.
More than 5,800 people have been killed in eastern Ukraine since fighting began in April, after Russia's seizure of Crimea and the appearance in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Russian nationalist "volunteers" to bolster the separatist cause.
Russia denies involvement in the Ukraine conflict. However, NATO satellite imagery has recorded Russian armored columns moving across the border into Ukraine and captured Russian soldiers have confessed to being deployed by Moscow.
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