Ukraine hosts 'unity' talks facing breakup threat

Ukraine launches Western-sponsored roundtable "national unity" talks on Wednesday (14/05/2014) but without pro-Moscow rebels who are waging an armed insurgency in the east that threatens to tear the country apart.

The discussions open a day after rebels killed seven Ukrainian soldiers in an ambush, the deadliest single loss of life for the military since it launched an offensive against the separatists in April.

The bloodshed underscores the urgency of the new Western effort to resolve the escalating crisis on Europe's doorstep after the failure of a deal hammered out in Geneva last month.

European leaders have called for Wednesday's talks, being held under a roadmap drafted by the pan-European security body the OSCE, to be as inclusive as possible.

The meeting will bring together government officials including Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk as well as lawmakers, and former leaders and candidates running in this month's crunch presidential election.

But rebels who have overrun more than a dozen towns in the east and proclaimed "sovereignty" in the industrial regions of Donetsk and Lugansk after hotly disputed weekend referendums are not invited.

"The Ukrainian leadership is open for an inclusive national unity dialogue," a Ukrainian foreign ministry spokesman said.

"However, it is impossible to engage terrorists, whose objective is to destroy not only national unity but Ukrainian statehood," he said in a statement, accusing Russia of playing a "dirty game".

Sergey Soboliev, the parliamentary head of the Fatherland Party of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, demanded that before any talks the separatists must first "lay down their arms and release the seized buildings".

German Chancellor Angela Merkel nevertheless said the talks offered a "good possibility" of finding a way out of the worst crisis between Moscow and the West since the Cold War.

"The more representative the roundtables are, the better that is," she said Tuesday, but added that there was no place for those who support violence.

Her Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was in Ukraine Tuesday to push Kiev and pro-Moscow rebels to come together at the negotiating table ahead of the May 25 presidential election.

EU leaders ramped up the pressure on Russia with new sanctions Monday, and warned of further "far-reaching" punitive measures if the election fails.

But while voicing support for the OSCE plan, Russia has accused Ukraine's pro-West authorities of refusing "real dialogue" with the separatists.

It is demanding that Kiev halt its military operation in the east if rebels are to comply with the peace initiative, and insists that negotiations on regional rights must take place before the presidential vote.

Russia has however rolled back its vehement opposition to the election, which was called by Kiev's new leaders after the ouster of pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych in February, the climax of months of sometimes deadly pro-EU protests.

"I find it hard to believe that these elections can be fully legitimate. But it is clear that the failure of the elections is an even more dismal situation. It's about choosing the lesser of two evils," the speaker of the lower house State Duma, Sergei Naryshkin, told Russia-24 television.

Concerns over Ukraine's very future have been heightened following the independence votes in the eastern industrial regions, home to seven million of the country's 46 million people.

The referendums were rejected as illegal by Kiev and the West, fearful that President Vladimir Putin would move quickly to annex the territories as he did with Crimea in March.

Putin said last week that Russia had withdrawn its estimated 40,000 troops from the border, but the West says it has seen no sign of a major pullback.

Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk pressed for urgent NATO and EU action, warning there was a "real risk or threat that the Ukrainian state could fall, or at least be subject to a very painful split".

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which began as a forum for dialogue in the Cold War, is playing a key role in trying to defuse the crisis with a roadmap calling for "restraint from violence, disarmament, national dialogue, and elections".

Violence has raged for weeks in eastern Ukraine as government troops carry out what Kiev describes as "anti-terrorist" operations against well-armed rebels.

Dozens have been killed in fighting in the east and in an inferno in the southern port city of Odessa, with seven Ukrainian soldiers killed Tuesday in the latest deadly unrest.

The Kremlin said Kiev had to immediately stop "reprisal raids" - using a term that refers to a World War II-era Nazi massacre.

But interim President Oleksandr Turchynov insisted the offensive would go on.

The deepening crisis has also stoked European concerns about the vital supply of Russian gas, much of which flows through Ukraine.

Yatsenyuk, in Brussels to seek EU support for his beleaguered government, accused Russia of "stealing" Ukraine's gas and threatened to take Russia to the international arbitration court if it rejected proposals to settle their dispute over gas contracts and prices.

Russia has threatened to cut supplies from June 3 if the economically struggling Ukraine does not settle a 1.66 billion bill.

Nearly 15 percent of all gas consumed in Europe is delivered from Russia via Ukraine and previous disputes in 2006 and 2009 disrupted supplies to parts of the EU. - AFP