Shelling has been reported on the outskirts of the Ukrainian port city Mariupol, hours ahead of ceasefire talks in Minsk. The talks are set to involve representatives from the separatist movement, Moscow and Kyiv.
Witnesses heard renewed shelling on Friday near Ukraine's eastern port city of Mariupol. The city, which has become the latest flashpoint in the conflict between Kyiv and pro-Moscow rebels, lies along the Sea of Azov, between Russia and the Moscow-annexed Crimean Peninsula. Seizure of the city would give the pro-Moscow rebels a strong foothold.
The shelling comes hours ahead of peace talks in the Belarusian capital, Minsk. The Minsk discussions are set to involve representatives of the separatist movement, Russian and Ukrainian governments and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
On Thursday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko voiced cautious optimism about the possibility of a ceasefire with pro-Russian separatists while at a NATO summit in Wales.
Poroshenko - who spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin before heading to the NATO summit in Wales as a guest - told delegates he was prepared to order a cessation of hostilities, should a deal be signed during the Minsk talks.
"Ukraine is fighting for peace," Poroshenko told a news conference on Thursday. "It's Ukraine which pays the highest price every single day, losing lives of soldiers...innocent civilians."
In turn, NATO leaders expressed their unanimous support for Ukraine, vowing to back Ukraine's fight against pro-Russia separatists.
In a statement, the alliance's 28 heads of state and government joined Poroshenko in accusing Russia of orchestrating the crisis in eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin has consistently denied that it is aiding the rebels.
Top NATO officials were expected to announce further sanctions against Moscow if the talks in Minsk prove fruitless.
Fighting between the separatists and government troops has been going on since April, with the UN estimating that nearly 2,600 people have died.
hc/jr (Retuers, AFP, AP)