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No alternative to Minsk agreement, say foreign ministers

After more than four hours of talks in Berlin, Russia and Ukraine have agreed to the withdrawal of more weapons from eastern Ukraine. The talks took place amid renewed violence in the region.

Meeting in Berlin, the ministers of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany also called for a stronger role for the observer mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and for the withdrawal of heavy weapons.

The talks

, hosted by Germany's top diplomat Frank-Walter Steinmeier, took place amid a fresh outbreak of violence in a village near the Azov Sea. Both sides accused the other of having violated the ceasefire originally agreed to in February in the Belarusian capital, Minsk.

Speaking to reporters shortly after the meeting wrapped up at midnight, Steinmeier admitted that talks had been "very long, very intensive and at times very contentious" given the tense situation on the ground.

"Everyone knows that we have a long path ahead of us," he said, "but we're going to do everything we can to continue this process." He added that there was no alternative to the Minsk agreement.

Lugansk

Lugansk

New deal for Russia, Ukraine

Earlier, Moscow and Kyiv agreed to a withdrawal of smaller caliber weapons from the front lines in a bid to finally end the yearlong conflict.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Ukrainian counterpart, Pavlo Klimkin, further agreed to support international monitors and establish working groups for addressing the most pressing issues facing residents of the conflict zone, where pro-Russian separatists have been fighting government forces since last April.

Steinmeier said that the new deal entails the withdrawal of mortars and heavy weapons below 100 mm (3.94 inches) caliber, along with tanks of all types. It further calls for holding local elections in rebel-occupied areas and continuing the exchange of prisoners of war as well as improving the desperate economic situation in the conflict zone.

Spike in hostilities

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is overseeing the ceasefire, reported a sharp increase of hostilities over the weekend.

In an interview with Russian state media after the meeting, Lavrov said that the parties could not agree on the Ukrainian demand for peacekeeping forces. He also took the opportunity to criticize

several measures recently passed by parliament

in Kyiv of having eroded the Minsk truce.

"We underlined the need to fulfill the Minsk agreements in their entirety, not just in the military segment, but also in political, economic and humanitarian spheres," local media quoted Lavrov as saying.

The foreign ministers from the G7 plan to continue the crisis talks at their summit in the German city of Lübeck on Tuesday. Lavrov, however, will be excluded from the meeting, as Russia was dropped from the then-G8 group following its annexation of Crimea early last year.

es/cmk (AP, dpa, Reuters)

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