Merkel, Hollande, Putin continue work on new Ukraine peace plan

Story highlights

  • Talks among German, French, Russian leaders on Ukraine will continue via phone on Sunday
  • French and German leaders take a new plan for peace negotiations to Moscow
  • Russia must pull back troops and weapons, close its border with Ukraine, John Kerry says

Moscow (CNN)German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande met Friday with their Russian counterpart and began to draw up a new proposal to end the bitter conflict in eastern Ukraine.

The peace talks with President Vladimir Putin ended early Saturday, the Kremlin told CNN. Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, said a joint document based on a prior peace plan agreed to in Minsk, Belarus, in September, is not yet complete.
    The parties will engage in further talks by phone on Sunday, Peskov said.
    The new diplomatic push comes as a worsening conflict in eastern Ukraine is taking an increasingly heavy toll on civilians.
    Speaking in Berlin before her departure for Moscow, Merkel said she hoped to secure a ceasefire, but the prospects were not certain.
    She said she was "sure that there is no military solution to the conflict" and that she and Hollande would "work against this escalation with all our powers to stop this horror" as they meet with Putin.
    Merkel made clear that she would not do a deal with Russia that bypasses Ukraine's leadership, saying she "will not decide anything over the heads of anyone." The solution must be in line with the Minsk agreement, she said.
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    Russia, Ukraine and separatist leaders signed that pact, but continued fighting left it in shreds. It's not yet clear how the new proposal differs from the Minsk agreement.
    Hollande said Thursday that the joint proposal for new negotiations would be "based upon the territorial integrity of Ukraine."
    The pair hope the proposal will be acceptable to all parties in the conflict, he said. But he said that "the option of negotiation, of diplomacy, cannot be extended indefinitely."
    Western leaders and Kiev accuse Russia of fostering the conflict by providing weapons and training to the pro-Russian separatists battling Ukrainian forces in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, as well as sending regular Russian troops over the border to fight. Moscow denies the allegations.

    Civilians at risk

    Amid the diplomatic maneuverings, there were reports from Ukraine suggesting that more civilians could be evacuated from current conflict zones. Both sides in the conflict have been blamed for shelling civilian areas.
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    The self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic said on its website that it had offered Kiev the chance for civilians to leave Debaltseve, northeast of the city of Donetsk, where shells have been falling for days.
    Debaltseve is under government control, and police efforts to evacuate civilians have been underway for days, hindered by the shelling of the main road out of the city.
    According to the Ukrainian counterterrorist operation media office, the shelling in the area has decreased since Thursday. But it's unclear how many civilians still remain in Debaltseve.
    The latest government statement said that arrangements for the evacuation of people from dangerous areas in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions were "ongoing."
    The media office of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic said the evacuation of civilians had started in the town of Chernukhino, in Luhansk, and would continue until the afternoon.
    Civilians increasingly are falling victim to the violence, with at least 224 killed and more than 540 injured in the final three weeks of January, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said this week.

    Kerry: Pull back weapons

    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking on a visit to Kiev on Thursday, insisted that the ball was in Moscow's court to resolve the crisis in its neighboring country.
    He called on Moscow to take three steps he said would enable a diplomatic solution "that is staring everyone in the face."
    Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, in Kiev with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, offers his glasses to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
    Those include pulling back heavy weapons beyond the range of civilian populations, removing foreign troops and heavy equipment from Ukraine, and closing the Russia-Ukraine border.
    Kerry said no one wanted conflict with Russia, but "we cannot close our eyes" to tanks, heavy weapons and soldiers crossing the border from Russia into Ukraine.
    Russian leaders must be blind if they keep denying that forces from their country have crossed the border, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk added.
    "If they need, I can give them my glasses," Yatsenyuk said. "It is crystal clear that (the) Russian military is on the ground. We are not fighting so-called rebels or guerrillas. We are fighting with the Russian regular army."
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    Peskov, the Putin spokesman, told CNN that Kerry's remarks in Ukraine "just shows the unwillingness and inability of the United States to participate in settlement of the Ukrainian crisis."
    He said, "As for Russian tanks, allegedly crossing Russian-Ukrainian border, we've commented on this before -- there are no Russian tanks or army in Ukraine, such accusations are not true."

    Munich meetings

    The annual Munich Security Conference was to start Friday in Germany, when the crisis in Ukraine is likely again to top the agenda.
    NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he would hold bilateral meetings in Munich this weekend with Kerry, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
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    Biden was holding meetings with European leaders Friday in Brussels, Belgium.
    The European Union and United States have already imposed a series of financial sanctions targeting Russian interests and separatist leaders in Ukraine.
    U.S. officials this week said the United States is considering sending so-called defensive lethal aid to the Ukrainian government, which could include anti-tank, anti-air and anti-mortar systems.
    NATO defense ministers decided Thursday to establish new NATO command and control units in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria and Poland, close to Russia's western borders.