KIEV (REUTERS) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Saturday the standoff over Ukraine could be solved but only if control was tightened over the Ukraine-Russia border across which, the West alleges, Russia has been funnelling arms to help a separatist rebellion.
Merkel was visiting Kiev as a prelude to a meeting next week between the Russian and Ukrainian leaders that diplomats say is the best chance in months of a peace deal in eastern Ukraine, where government forces are fighting pro-Moscow rebels. But she arrived as tensions flared up again. NATO has alleged Russia's military is active inside Ukraine helping the rebels, and Moscow angered Kiev and its Western allies by sending an aid convoy into Ukraine against Kiev's wishes.
"There must be two sides to be successful. You cannot achieve peace on your own. I hope the talks with Russia will lead to success," said Merkel, looking ahead to a meeting on Tuesday involving Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko. "The plans are on the table...now actions must follow," the German leader told a news conference after talks with Poroshenko in the Ukrainian capital. She said a ceasefire was needed, but the main obstacle was the lack of controls along the nearly 2,000 km border.
She proposed an agreement between Kiev and Moscow on monitoring of the frontier by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Poroshenko suggested he saw scope for accord.
"The Ukrainian side and our European partners will do everything possible to bring about peace - but not at the price of sovereignty, territorial integrity and the independence of Ukraine," he said. Hours before her plane landed in Kiev, there was heavy artillery bombardment in Donetsk, the main separatist stronghold on the east of Ukraine, near the border with Russia.
Reuters reporters saw apartments destroyed and puddles of blood, where, according to residents, two civilians were killed. The unusually intense shelling may be part of a drive by government forces to achieve a breakthrough against the rebels in time for Ukrainian Independence Day, which falls on Sunday. Diplomats say Merkel has two aims for the visit: primarily to show support for Kiev in its stand-off with Russia, but also to urge Poroshenko to be open to peace proposals when he meets Putin next week.
The conflict in Ukraine has dragged Russian-Western relations to their lowest ebb since the Cold War and sparked a round of trade sanctions that are hurting already-fragile economies in European and Russia. A convoy of about 220 white-painted trucks rolled into Ukraine on Friday through a border crossing controlled by the rebels after days waiting for clearance.
Moscow said the trucks moved in without Kiev's consent because civilians in areas under siege from Ukrainian government troops were in urgent need of food, water and other supplies. Kiev called the convoy a direct invasion, a stance echoed by NATO, the United States, and European leaders. A Reuters journalist at the Donetsk-Izvaryne border crossing, where the convoy rolled into Ukraine on Friday, said trucks on Saturday had started pouring back onto the Russian side of the border.
The foreign ministry in Moscow said the convoy had now left Ukraine, though a Ukrainian military spokesman disputed this, saying only 184 of the 220 vehicles had re-entered Russia. In Brussels, NATO said it had reports of Russian troops engaging Kiev's forces inside Ukraine - fuelling Western allegations that the Kremlin is behind the conflict in an effort undermine the Western-leaning leadership in Kiev.
"Russian artillery support - both cross border and from within Ukraine - is being employed against the Ukrainian armed forces," said NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu. A Ukrainian military spokesman in Kiev, Andriy Lysenko, said Ukrainian government forces were now coming under cross-border fire from Russia, using Grad and Uragan missiles, over a 400 kms (250 mile) length of the border.
The Russian foreign ministry, in a statement, called those allegations "groundless." Russia accuses Kiev, with the backing of the West, of waging a war against innocent civilians in eastern Ukraine, a mainly Russian-speaking region.
The crisis over Ukraine started when mass protests in Kiev ousted a president who was close to Moscow, and installed leaders viewed with suspicion by the Kremlin. Soon after that, Russia annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea, and a separatist rebellion broke out in eastern Ukraine. In the past weeks, the momentum has shifted towards Ukraine's forces, who have been pushing back the rebels.
The separatists are now encircled in their two strongholds, Luhansk and Donetsk. Reuters reporters in Donetsk said that most of the shelling was taking place in the outskirts, but explosions were also audible in the centre of the city. In Donetsk's Leninsky district, a man who gave his name as Grigory, said he was in the toilet on Saturday morning when he heard the whistling sound of incoming artillery. "Then it hit. I came out and half the building was gone."
The roof of the building had collapsed into a heap of debris. Grigory said his 27-year-old daughter was taken to hospital with injuries to her head. He picked up a picture of a baby from the rubble. "This is my grandson," he said. In another residential area, about 5 km north of the city centre, a shop and several houses had been hit. Residents said two men, civilians, were killed. Praskoviya Grigoreva, 84, pointed to two puddles of blood on the pavement near a bus stop that was destroyed in the same attack. "He's dead. Death took him on this spot," she said.