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Steinmeier: Ceasefire is an opportunity

September 15, 2016

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has visited eastern Ukraine with his counterparts from Paris and Kyiv. But the seven-day ceasefire now in effect is just a first step, Germany's top diplomat told DW.

Ukraine - Außenminister Frank-Walter Steinmeier
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Rothbart

The German and French foreign ministers made their first visit to Ukraine's war-torn east on Thursday. Government forces have battled separatists in the region since April 2014.

"Anyone familiar with such conflicts...will know that we have no reason to be optimistic," Steinmeier said in an interview with DW. But, he added, the ceasefire would likely be a good "stepping stone toward renewed negotiations."

Steinmeier and his French and Ukrainian counterparts, Jean-Marc Ayrault (right in photo) and Pavlo Klimkin, respectively, arrived in government-controlled Kramatorsk Thursday morning. Germany's foreign minister also delivered new equipment to observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, including 1,200 pairs of gloves, binoculars, GPS trackers and clothing.

Steinmeier stressed the need for continued vigilance, however, telling DW that "we cannot be satisfied with just a seven-day ceasefire, even if it holds."

'A sustainable de-escalation'

Officials in Kyiv say Russia has militarily backed separatists. Officials in Moscow deny any direct role in the conflict, which has brought the Kremlin's relations with Western Europe to their lowest level since the Cold War.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov expressed optimism that the foreign ministers' visit would encourage Ukraine's government to fulfill its ceasefire promises, including elections in the east as part of the 13-point plan to give the territory more autonomy. "If this visit contributes to Ukraine's implementation of commitments, then it can only be welcomed," Peskov told journalists on Thursday.

Government officials say Ukraine cannot hold the elections until security conditions allow for them and national forces have regained control of the border with Russia - another point of the Minsk agreement not yet implemented. And Ukraine's military has accused separatists of opening fire on government positions four times since the truce came into force; the rebels say Kyiv has also failed to fully respect the truce.

On Thursday, the United Nations reported that the situation has worsened in recent months and remains deeply unstable. "In fact, there is a real risk that a new outbreak of violence could happen at any time," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said.

The UN also reported that the conflict had led to the deaths of 188 civilians in the past three months, pushing the total number of people killed to 9,640. Pre-ceasefire fighting on Wednesday led to the deaths of three separatist soldiers and three government troops.

In just under two and a half years, the conflict has internally displaced about 1.7 million people. An additional 1.1 million have fled to neighboring countries.

mkg/kms (Reuters, AFP, dpa)