France and Germany looked set to ramp up pressure on Russia to stem the Ukraine conflict in frantic negotiations as the clock ticks down on a shaky truce.
French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were due to hold four-way telephone talks with Kremlin strongman Vladimir Putin and new Kiev leader Petro Poroshenko on Monday ahead of a deadline for an unsteady ceasefire to end in violence-hit eastern Ukraine.
The last-minute talks follow a two-hour conversation between the quartet on Sunday in which Merkel and Hollande reiterated a warning from the EU that it could slap punishing sanctions on Moscow on Monday if Putin did not explicitly pressure pro-Kremlin rebels to stop fighting.
The two European heads and Putin agree on the need to extend a ceasefire that they say is a key first step towards ending 13 weeks of bloodshed that has claimed about 450 lives.
Ukraine’s national security council said on Monday it would make a decision on whether to extend the ceasefire before it expires at 1900 GMT (0500 Tuesday).
On the ground though, the supposed truce has done little to stem the violence with both sides accusing each other of carrying on firing.
On Monday, Russian state TV station Channel One said that its cameraman Anatoly Klyan, 68, died after being shot in the stomach by Ukrainian troops on an overnight reporting trip with insurgents at a military base near the rebel-controlled city of Donetsk.
Russia’s foreign ministry said the death showed that Ukrainian forces “clearly do not want a de-escalation in the armed conflict in the east”.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces said that attacks by the insurgents over the weekend killed five of its soldiers.
Embattled Poroshenko is coming under growing public pressure to launch a full-scale assault, with about 500 people protesting against the ceasefire outside his office on Sunday.
“We have to declare martial law in the east and clean out the region as quickly as possible,” Igor, an ex-soldier who has volunteered to fight the insurgents, told AFP.
“Now we have enough resources to do this, but if the authorities delay then the rebels will get reinforcements and this disease will spread,” he said.
Poroshenko refuses to meet rebel commanders who have “blood on their hands”.
The Western-backed head of state has hinted that he may again resort to force should the guerillas fail to disarm and cede control of state buildings across a dozen cities and towns.
For their part, separatist leaders say they will not engage in direct negotiations with Kiev until government forces withdraw from the heavily Russified east.
Over the past few days the rebels have tightened their grip in the region by forcing a string of pro-government military bases around Donetsk to surrender.
Kiev and its Western allies accuse Russia of both arming and funding the militias in a bid to unsettle the new Ukrainian government as revenge for the February ouster of a pro-Kremlin president who had ditched the very EU agreement Poroshenko signed on Friday.
In an unusually strong warning, the EU threatened Putin with broader economic sanctions that could cut off whole sectors of the Russian economy from the 28-nation bloc’s 500 million consumers.
The US has promised to move in lockstep with Europe on Russian sanctions.
The possibility of the US and Europe freezing access to Russia’s banking sector has already dented the country’s outlook.
Russia’s economy minister warned on Saturday that new sanctions could “seriously” impact growth that the International Monetary Fund believes may only reach 0.2 per cent this year.
Moscow has indicated it is preparing an economic counter-offensive that would slap prohibitive barriers on Ukrainian trade.