Merkel, Putin call for restraint as tensions high in eastern Ukraine


(dpa) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin have called on the conflict parties in eastern Ukraine to exercise restraint amid fresh tensions, in a phone call between the two leaders on Thursday, the two governments said.

According to the Kremlin, during the conversation, Merkel and Putin expressed concern about the situation in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine.

The leaders reportedly called for strengthening negotiations to implement the peace plan, established in 2015, as an “undisputed basis” to end the conflict.

The peace plan in Ukraine foresees talks with the separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk and a status of autonomy for the regions, but Kiev has rejected both.

Merkel called for a reduction of the Russian military presence in eastern Ukraine in order to achieve de-escalation, according to Ulrike Demmer, deputy spokesperson of the German government.

Putin spoke of “provocative actions” on behalf of Ukraine, which recently toughened its stance along the front, and called on Kiev to stick to the agreements, the Kremlin said.

The Kremlin and the German government said Putin and Merkel also discussed the situation in war-torn Syria and jailed dissident Alexei Navalny.

The United States had words of caution about the situation.

“Russia now has more troops on the border with Ukraine than at any time since 2014,” said White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki, who added that five Ukrainians had been killed this week alone.
“These are all deeply concerning signs,” she said.

Tensions have recently been mounting again in eastern Ukraine, which has been locked in conflict for the past seven years, after reports of Russian and Ukrainian troop build-ups in the area and violations of a ceasefire.

Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula seven years ago after a controversial referendum. Parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions along the Russian border are controlled by rebels supported by Moscow.

As a result of the fighting with government troops, more than 13,000 people have been killed, according to UN estimates.

Despite the agreed ceasefire, there have been repeated deadly clashes.

On Thursday, the Ukrainian army said a soldier was killed and another wounded in fire exchanges with separatist troops in Donetsk and near the town of Vodyane. This takes the number of fatalities since the beginning of the year to 50.

According to the reports, one civilian in rebel-held territory was also several wounded, though this has not been confirmed.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday travelled to the region to support the soldiers’ “fighting spirit,” the presidential office said.

At the front lines, he gave no signs that he was interested in de-escalation and instead visited a soldier’s canteen, where he praised the “high quality of the food.”

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