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Six Ukrainian soldiers killed as clashes flare in east

April 14, 2015

Six soldiers were killed and 12 injured in separatist-held east Ukraine in the last 24 hours as a fresh flare-up of fighting rattles a shaky ceasefire, Kiev’s military said Tuesday.

The situation in the conflict zone “remains unstable”, with “armed provocations by the enemy continuing on almost all sides,” military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said.

The deaths, the highest toll in the last 10 days, come as the foreign ministers of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France expressed “grave concern” over surging violations of the February ceasefire.

The top diplomats from the four countries held talks in Berlin overnight to evaluate the status of the truce deal aimed at ending a year of fighting that has killed more than 6,000 people.

Lysenko said separatist insurgents used 120mm mortars and 122mm canons against the army despite an agreement under the ceasefire to withdraw all such weaponry from the frontline.

The heaviest fighting took place around the airport of the rebel bastion of Donetsk, a city once home to a million people in the industrial east.

Another hotspot was Shyrokyne, on the outskirts of the strategic port city of Mariupol, the last major city still in government hands in the rebel east.

Russian TV network Zvezda, which is controlled by the defence ministry, said one of its journalists was badly injured there after stepping on a landmine.

The accident occurred as monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) visited the village.

– ‘Very long, very intensive’ –

In Berlin, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the five-hour talks had been “very long, very intensive and at times very contentious” given the tense situation on the ground.

“We must ensure that the ceasefire is respected a lot more comprehensively than it was in recent days,” he told reporters.

After weeks in which the ceasefire agreed in the Belarussian capital Minsk appeared to be largely holding despite isolated skirmishes, clashes seem to be mounting in flashpoint areas.

Ukrainian army spokesman Oleksandr Motuzianyk said Monday one soldier had been killed and six hurt in the past 24 hours. Separatist officials said four civilians had been injured in the conflict zone.

European OSCE monitors reported “renewed intensive fighting” Sunday around the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, with more than 1,166 explosions in under six hours, mainly from artillery and mortar fire.

In accordance with the Minsk deal, the two sides claim to have withdrawn heavy arms from the frontline but the OSCE said “weapons with a calibre larger than 100mm were used by both sides during the fighting”.

The ministers in Berlin renewed their call for the withdrawal of such weapons, and extended the appeal to include “heavy weapons below 100mm as well as all types of tanks”.

They underlined their appeal to both sides “to establish permanent and unfettered access” for monitors from the OSCE, which also dispatched representatives to the meeting in the German capital.

The OSCE, which has some 400 civilian monitors on the ground, complains that both sides are intimidating its monitors or restricting their movements in east Ukraine.

The results of the talks in Berlin will be discussed at a meeting of G7 foreign ministers in the northern German city of Luebeck on Tuesday and Wednesday that will be attended by US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.