The German and French foreign ministers have made a first visit to Ukraine’s crisis-hit east, some 29 months after a conflict erupted in the region between government troops and pro-Russia forces.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault arrived in Kramatorsk, a city controlled by the Ukrainian army in eastern Ukraine, on Thursday.
The two top diplomats, key mediators in the Ukrainian peace process, had met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in the country’s capital, Kiev, on Wednesday.
The trilateral meeting was held a day after one of the bloodiest days of the conflict in weeks. Tuesday saw government troops and pro-Russia forces losing three fighters each.
On Tuesday, pro-Russia leaders announced a unilateral ceasefire after they reported that their forces had come under mortar fire the previous day.
Steinmeier said after meeting with Poroshenko on Wednesday that both Moscow and Kiev had agreed to observe the truce.
Ayrault, too, had said that the truce could pave the way for more moves aimed at peace next week. He said he expected that both sides would agree to pull out their troops from the lines of conflict in three hotspots in the coming week.
“In the next week, we see an opportunity for a new dynamic in the conflict,” Ayrault said.
A ceasefire was implemented on September 1 to coincide with the start of the school year, but it failed to stop all fighting.
“We are again at a crossroads. We see a small sliver of hope in the back-to-school ceasefire… but it is not enough,” Steinmeier said.
If the truce holds and further agreement is reached between the warring sides, the foreign ministers of Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia will sit at a table in New York next week on the sidelines of a meeting of the UN General Assembly.
Since April 2014, eastern Ukraine has been the scene of bloody battles between government forces and pro-Russia fighters. The conflict has left more than 9,600 people dead, most of them killed before another truce deal came into effect in February 2015.
The 2015 agreement reached between Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany in the Belarusian capital of Minsk largely calmed the situation but sporadic clashes have continued on the frontline.
Warring sides were supposed to end hostilities by the end of last year but the lack of progress and continued fighting forced them to extend the Minsk Agreement through 2017.