Ukraine launched delicate dual-track diplomacy with Russia yesterday aimed at averting a debilitating gas cut and ending a bloody separatist insurgency by the end of the week.
The meetings in Brussels and Kiev throw down an immediate challenge to new President Petro Poroshenko's European commitment and vow to preserve the territorial integrity of the splintered ex-Soviet state.
The 48-year-old confectionery tycoon and political veteran promised late Sunday to end fighting "this week" in Ukraine's economically vital eastern rust belt that has claimed more than 200 lives.
And he affirmed after being sworn in as Ukraine's fifth president on Saturday that Kiev would sign a historic pact with the European Union that would finally wrest it out of Russia's orbit as soon as the end of the month. But the eight-week insurgency that Kiev and the West accuse Russia of orchestrating raged unabated over the weekend.
Ukrainian military sources told AFP that militants had staged a wave of failed attacks on the international airport in the Russian border city of Lugansk.
Intense artillery fire and air bombardments also continued in the rebel Donetsk region stronghold of Slavyansk -- an industrial city of 120,000 where many have been sheltering in basements for weeks.
The Ukrainian army also said pro-Russian gunmen had taken several of its soldiers prisoner overnight.
The EU-mediated gas talks in Brussels come on the eve of a Russian deadline for Ukraine to cover a debt of nearly $4.4 billion or have its shipments end tomorrow. About 15 percent of Europe's gas from Russia transits through Ukraine -- dependence that EU nations have been trying to limit following similar disruptions in 2006 and 2009.
But analysts said the fuel freeze would also deal a bruising blow to a Ukrainian economy that the IMF already expects to contract by five percent this year.
Ukraine has refused to pay the bills in protest at Russia's decision to nearly double its neighbour's rates in the wake of the February ouster of Kiev's Kremlin-backed president. Sources said the pressure on all sides to agree greatly boosted the chances of a compromise being reached yesterday.
Poroshenko conceded upon taking the oath of office that the eastern uprising could not be resolved without the direct involvement of Russia.
Poroshenko affirmed that "we must end the fighting this week." But his pledge was immediately dismissed as political grandstanding by separatists who have taken effective control of a dozen towns and cities and are now seeking a formal invitation to join Russia.
Poroshenko himself did not spell out how he intended to make gunmen comply with the ceasefire or whether he would order a full military withdrawal.x