European leaders took their case for a negotiated resolution of the nearly yearlong Ukraine conflict to the Kremlin on Friday as fighting paused briefly to allow hundreds of trapped civilians to escape the latest battleground.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande met for five hours with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin but gave no indication of whether progress was made toward ending warfare that has taken more than 5,300 lives since April.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said a new proposal would be discussed among the Russian, Ukrainian and European leaders by phone on Sunday.
The three leaders took a break after 90 minutes to appear before journalists but made no statements before Putin shooed out reporters so the talks could resume.
The Moscow visit and a meeting that Merkel and Hollande held Thursday with Ukrainian leaders in Kiev appear to have been prompted by renewed debate in Washington over whether the United States should send arms to the Ukrainian government to help put down a Russia-backed uprising.
The two European leaders, who have expressed deep reservations about adding to the deadly arsenals of either side, may have warned Putin that failure to agree to a negotiated settlement could result in Washington sending "lethal aid" to Kiev. That would suggest an unspoken ultimatum: compromise or see the separatists in eastern Ukraine faced with a more formidable adversary.
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry was also in Kiev on Thursday for talks with Ukrainian leaders, who have for months appealed to their Western allies for weapons to counter the resurgent separatists. Kerry and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko accused Russia of fomenting the violence with arms and fighters who have helped the separatists conquer new territory in recent weeks.
The European leaders were reportedly carrying a peace initiative that envisions a new cease-fire to replace an ineffectual truce announced Sept. 5.
The proposal being discussed with the Russian and Ukrainian leaders incorporates some elements of a blueprint put forward by Putin on Jan. 15, presidential aide Yuri Ushakov told journalists at the Kremlin. In addition to a new cease-fire, it calls for autonomy for the separatist-held regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Such an agreement would give the Kremlin influence, through its political proxies, over major decisions on matters such as whether Ukraine should seek to join the European Union and NATO.
Hollande, in what appeared to be a bow to Putin, said before embarking on the peace mission that he opposed NATO membership for Ukraine.
It was Putin's attempt to thwart Ukraine's plan to enter a trade agreement with the European Union 15 months ago that sparked a popular uprising in western Ukraine that eventually toppled Kremlin-allied President Viktor Yanukovich. A pro-Europe government and parliament now rule Ukraine.
The new approach to negotiating an end to the conflict reportedly also calls for re-establishing Kiev government control over the country's eastern border with Russia, a move that probably would put an end to weapons and fighters moving in from Russia to aid the separatists. It also would restore an objective contained in the Sept. 5 agreement for withdrawal of artillery from the front lines defined on Sept. 19, in effect rolling back the separatist gains since then.
Yuri Butusov, a senior Ukrainian defense expert, said Putin was angling for de facto legal recognition of the more than 580 square miles of Ukrainian territory occupied by the pro-Russia separatists.
Poroshenko would never agree to such a plan, Butusov said, or "his days in office will be numbered."
Meanwhile, Ukrainian government troops and pro-Russia separatists briefly halted fire Friday to allow evacuation of civilians trapped by fierce fighting over a strategic railway hub in the town of Debaltseve.
Dozens of buses converged on the town, a rail junction sought by the rebels to link their eastern Ukraine strongholds, to offer the estimated 3,000 holdout residents a chance to be relocated to Ukrainian government-held territory or to separatist-occupied Donetsk, representatives of the warring factions confirmed.
Only about 50 people from the town that was once home to 25,000 boarded the buses bound for Donetsk, Daria Morozova of the separatist government told reporters. Zorian Shkiriak, an advisor to the Ukrainian Interior Ministry, reported on Facebook that a "green corridor" had been established to evacuate civilians wanting to go westward, but he did not provide figures for how many had taken advantage of the chance to escape.
The constant shelling has knocked out power and water supplies and driven those left in the town to take refuge in frigid basements. Dozens have died there in recent weeks, among the nearly 250 civilians killed in eastern Ukraine since the first of the year, according to United Nations and local casualty figures.