The foreign ministers of Ukraine and Russia backed a new cease-fire plan Wednesday as a Kiev government assault intensified and apparently drove pro-Russia separatists into retreat from their stronghold in the city of Donetsk.
The agreement to restart peace talks by Saturday was brokered by the foreign ministers of Germany and France at a meeting in Berlin. The top diplomats of the four countries pledged to “use their influence on the concerned parties” to bring an end to the bloodshed, they said in a statement.
But deals negotiated far from the eastern Ukraine battlefields have so far failed to stem violence that has claimed at least 500 lives in recent weeks.
Ukrainian military officials told reporters in Kiev, the capital, that government troops attacked more than 100 separatist positions after President Petro Poroshenko let a unilateral cease-fire expire Monday.
The reinvigorated government offensive swept separatist gunmen from three villages and spurred their evacuation from Donetsk, National Security and Defense Council spokesman Andriy Lysenko said.
The claim by the government couldn't be independently verified, and some Ukrainian news reports cast the separatists’ movements as preparation for a counteroffensive.
“Terrorists have begun evacuation from the seized building of the Donetsk Regional State Administration and are trying to escape from the city,” Lysenko said, adding that their aim was “to withdraw from the city all of their accumulated financial resources and weapons.”
Separatists have looted armories, police stations, national security offices and state banks in Donetsk in the three months that they’ve used the city as the base for their insurgency. Donetsk was a heavily industrialized city of a million residents before the fighting drove much of the civilian population to flee.
After a 10-day cease-fire proclaimed by Poroshenko was repeatedly violated, the Ukrainian president on Monday ordered troops to step up operations to recover the occupied towns and cities of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Airstrikes and heavy artillery barrages have been waged against rebel-held checkpoints and border crossings, Ukrainian officials reported.
Fighting was also fierce in central Donetsk on Tuesday, when separatists attempted to take over a national security office in the city.
Three soldiers and a border guard died in fighting Wednesday, Lysenko said, bringing the death toll among Ukrainian soldiers and police to 200. At least 279 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the Donetsk region, Bloomberg news agency reported, citing a local government source. Casualty figures have not been reported from the Luhansk region, where fighting also has been heavy.
In an apparent concession by Russia at the meeting in Berlin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Kremlin agreed to allow international monitoring of the Ukraine-Russia border by observers of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe once a reliable cease-fire is in place. Ukraine has accused Russia of sending fighters and weapons across the border.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied backing the separatists, although his annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in March inspired the pro-Russia gunmen in eastern Ukraine.
Former Russian special forces troops and mercenaries from Russia’s battles with Muslim separatists in the Caucasus region have been among those killed in eastern Ukraine’s fighting, and Russian-made tanks and artillery also have been spotted in the region.
The Berlin agreement calls for swift reconvening of a “contact group” that has tried in two previous meetings to get both sides to halt the fighting and negotiate their differences.
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July 2, 6:34 p.m.: This article has been updated with new details throughout.
This story was originally posted at 12:16 p.m.