Kerry meets Lavrov as Ukraine death toll soars
GENEVA, Switzerland – US Secretary of State John Kerry held tense talks with his Russian counterpart in Geneva Monday, March 2, to end fighting in Ukraine, where the UN says more than 6,000 have died in less than a year.
The meeting with Sergei Lavrov in Geneva came less than a week after Kerry accused Moscow of lying about its involvement in the conflict, and as high-stake talks to resolve a bitter gas dispute between Kiev and Moscow were also due in Brussels.
Speaking after the Geneva talks, Russia's foreign minister welcomed "tangible progress" in the implementation of a February 15 peace deal, saying "the ceasefire is being consolidated, heavy weapons are withdrawn."
Fighting has halted along most of Ukraine's frontline, raising hopes that Kiev and pro-Kremlin rebels holding parts of the east are moving towards implementing the shaky deal.
Several incidents still took place over the weekend, with photographer Sergiy Nikolayev killed by a mortar shell and 8 soldiers injured by rebel fire, according to Ukraine security spokesman Andriy Lysenko.
But in a more encouraging sign, Kiev security officials said Sunday no Ukrainian soldiers had been killed over the past 24 hours.
Both sides have begun to pull back some heavy weaponry from the frontline, but while monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported weapons movements on both sides, they said it was too early to confirm a full pullback.
It was as yet unclear exactly what Kerry and Lavrov talked about in their 80-minute encounter – later followed by a second, brief meeting – and the US diplomat was due to brief the press early afternoon.
But he is expected to have warned Lavrov that the US and EU are working on another slew of sanctions if Moscow does not adhere to the new ceasefire deal.
He was also thought to have pressed for assurances that Moscow carries out a credible probe into the assassination of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov – which Lavrov described as a "heinous crime."
'Crime against humanity?'
The United Nations, meanwhile, cast a cloud on hopes raised by the ceasefire with a report that painted a bleak picture of developments in the country.
"More than 6,000 lives have now been lost in less than a year due to the fighting in eastern Ukraine," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said in a statement.
The report detailed how the conflict was affecting civilians, pointing to arbitrary detention, torture and enforced disappearances committed mainly by armed groups but also in some cases by Ukrainian law enforcement agencies.
The swelling violence and dire living conditions have forced more and more people to flee, and by mid-February, at least one million people had been registered as internally displaced inside Ukraine.
"Many have been trapped in conflict zones, forced to shelter in basements, with hardly any drinking water, food, heating, electricity or basic medical supplies," Zeid said.
Speaking in Geneva for the launch of the report, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic said "the deliberate targeting of civilian areas may constitute a war crime and if widespread and systematic, a crime against humanity."
In Brussels, 3-way gas talks were also set to take place between the energy ministers of Ukraine and Russia, together with European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic.
Russian state-owned gas giant Gazprom threatened last week to cut deliveries to Ukraine over a dispute related to Moscow's move to supply gas directly to separatist areas and then demand that Kiev pay for it.
Rebel leaders in east Ukraine said that Kiev had suddenly ceased gas supplies, and asked for access to gas from Russia.
Ukraine's national gas company Naftogas did stop pumping gas to the separatist areas last month, saying it could not deliver due to a damaged pipeline, but added that deliveries resumed a few hours later.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused Ukraine of perpetrating a kind of "genocide" by denying energy to four million people living in territories hit by a humanitarian crisis.
The Kremlin appeared to soften its rhetoric, however, after the European Union unveiled plans last week for a continent-wide single energy market, with the goal of decreasing its reliance on Russian gas. – Rappler.com