Coordinators from the working groups of the Trilateral Contact Group for Ukraine commenced on Monday afternoon in the Belarusian capital Minsk, with the aim of resolving the crisis in the eastern Ukrainian city on Donbas.
"Negotiations on the settlement process in eastern Ukraine started in Minsk with a meeting of the coordinators of the working groups," the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced in an official tweet as the meeting began.
— Belarus MFA (@BelarusMFA) August 3, 2015
Representatives hope to sign an agreement to secure the pulling out of tanks, armored vehicles and weapons less than 100mm caliber from the war-torn Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, to form a 30-kilometre buffer zone separating government forces and pro-Russian separatist rebels, who have been fighting since the conflict began over a year ago.
The conditions of the agreement had already been agreed by the Contact Group in a meeting on July 21, but a deal is yet to be signed by the representatives.
Rebel representative Denis Pushilin and Vladislav Deynego from the self-proclaimed breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, which are both in the Donbass region, are said to be pushing for the continuation of meetings until the Donbass is granted “special status,” Russian news agency TASS reported.
The meeting also covered the demilitarisation of Shyrokyne, a coastal village in Ukraine’s Donetsk Oblast located approximately 23 kilometres east of Mariupol. Additionally, the representatives are expected to bring up a “road map” for the peace process between the warring sides as well as the discussion of humanitarian and economic issues.
An OSCE report previously released in April claimed that intense fighting around the village of Shyrokyne suggested that pro-Russian rebels had not withdrawn heavy weapons from the frontline in accordance with the Minsk 2 agreement, which was signed between the Ukrainian government and rebel leaders in the Belarusian capital on Feb. 15.
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry also offered its assistance to the talks, as spokesman Dmitry Mironchik told TASS that Belarus would do all it can to for the talks to be successful.
"The most important thing is not the duration of the negotiations but their effectiveness, the way it was in February during a meeting in the ‘Normandy format,’" Mironchik said, referring to a previous meeting in Minsk between Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
The four leaders last discussed developments in the conflict in a telephone conversation on July 23, after which the French presidency released a statement calling on the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission and experts of the Joint Coordination Center for Ceasefire Monitoring to “develop practical solutions for withdrawing the Ukrainian forces no later than August 3.”
Clashes mar talks
According to TASS, pro-Russian rebels unilaterally began withdrawing weapons less than 100mm caliber before the July 21 meeting in which the terms of the demilitarisation deal were agreed, but Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko claimed on Monday that rebels in Donetsk were using banned weapons after clashes killed four Ukrainian soldiers and left 15 others injured, ahead of the Minsk talks.
Monday’s death toll marks the highest number of casualties in a single day in the past two weeks, Reuters reported, adding that 29 Ukrainian soldiers were killed and 175 were injured in the month of July, as February’s fragile Minsk 2 ceasefire agreement continues to be violated.
TASS, on the other hand, accused the Ukrainian military of continuing the shelling of Donetsk, Gorlovka “and other populated localities of the Donbas region,” causing a number of casualties.
“The Ukrainian Armed Forces are not observing the ceasefire regime. From 6am on August 2 until 6am on August 3, six violations of ceasefire regime have been registered," the people’s militia of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) told the Luhansk Inform Center.
Weapons banned by the Minsk agreements, including 120mm caliber mortars, were also reportedly used by the government forces.
The rebel’s press service DAN on Monday stated that aggression by the Ukrainian government forces had killed 22 civilians and rebel fighters, while a further 29 people had been injured.
Over 6,000 people have been killed since fighting broke out in the region last year, following the deposing of pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych, who fled the country following pro-EU protests in Kiev.
The crisis led to the autonomous government in Crimea, which is dominated by ethnic Russians, to declare independence from Ukraine and eventually be annexed by Russia following a referendum.