Ukraine: Mediators set new peace talks as fighting reignites in east

Artillery exchanges resume in eastern Ukraine, prompting diplomatic scramble to save cease-fire

European mediators have called an urgent meeting in Belarus for Wednesday to try to salvage a nearly 3-month-old peace plan for Ukraine, where intense fighting has resumed in recent days and both sides are reported to be gearing up for new offensives.

"Militants have ratcheted up their activities over the past 24 hours, breaking the cease-fire 95 times, back to levels seen before the Feb. 12 cease-fire declaration," Ukrainian military spokesman Oleksiy Andryushin told reporters in Kiev.

Two Ukrainian soldiers died in eastern Ukraine overnight in fighting between government troops and pro-Russia separatists, Andryushin said Monday, adding to a death toll that exceeds 6,100 for the conflict that broke out 13 months ago.

Heavy artillery exchanges have been most intense near separatist-controlled Donetsk and around the village of Shyrokyne, near the key port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, monitors for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported over the weekend. The 57-nation group registered 698 explosions on Saturday and said the weapons used "included heavy mortars and artillery, heavy machine guns, small arms and main battle tanks."

Diplomats from the OSCE, Russia and Ukraine plan to meet in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, on Tuesday to lay the groundwork for a gathering a day later of representatives of the separatist regions and Ukrainian government officials.

Denis Pushilin of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic and Vladislav Deinego of the Luhansk separatist region told Russia's Tass news agency they had been invited to Minsk for discussions with representatives of the Ukrainian government.

The meetings were agreed to during a four-way phone discussion last week among French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Tass said.

Fighting for control of territory in eastern Ukraine largely died down after the February peace plan, when both sides' forces were bogged down in late winter snow that turned the battlegrounds into muddy swamps as the weather warmed over the past two months. The separatists and government forces withdrew some of their heavy weapons from the front lines after a cease-fire took effect on Feb. 15 but have returned them to the key battlegrounds, according to the monitors' reports.

Shyrokyne is only 12 miles from Mariupol, a major steelmaking and shipping center of 500,000 that lies on the coastal road linking Russia's Rostov region to Ukraine's Crimean peninsula, which Russian forces seized 14 months ago. Putin annexed Crimea on March 18, 2014, and has rejected accusations that the forced border change violated international law.

U.S. and European defense officials warned last month that Russia was building up forces near its border with Ukraine for what appeared to be a major offensive amid widespread fears the Russians might seek a land link through Ukraine to the Crimea.

A senior Ukrainian official, deputy head of the presidential administration Andriy Taranov, accused the Russian government of training a 50,000-strong separatist force to control and expand the territory they have seized in a campaign to align it with Russia.

Taranov said a fresh mobilization of government troops was underway, the fifth since the separatists attacked Donetsk and Luhansk in early April 2014 and proclaimed the regions independent "peoples republics" a month later.

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