Negotiations are reportedly beginning in Minsk today as both sides exchange claims of shelling with mortars over the last 24 hours. Fighting has been reported near Donetsk, Gorlovka, Mariupol and Krymskoye, in the Lugansk region.
Yesterday’s live coverage of the Ukraine conflict can be found here.
For links to individual updates click on the timestamps.
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Russia’s state-owned RIA Novosti news agency reports that a delegation from France led by Jacques Clostermann, a member of the far-right Front National, has arrived at the ruins of Donetsk Airport as part of a three-day visit to the separatist-held city.
A RIA Novosti correspondent reported that the delegation was touring the site with Eduard Basurin, deputy commander of the armed forces of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR):
Basurin is showing the French delegation the massive destruction and explaining the circumstances under which the Ukrainian security forces have shelled this territory.
Of course the vast majority of the destruction visible at Donetsk Airport is the result of the daily shelling by Russian-backed forces during the long siege of the airport, which ended in January last year.
“I hope that we can relay this to France, and we can broadcast this as much as possible so that French people can actually understand what is going on here. Because no one is talking about what is happening here in the Donbass.”
According to a press release from the ‘foreign ministry’ of the DNR, Clostermann is accompanied by two French lawyers – Josy-Jean Bousquet and Hanane Mashoud.
They arrived in Donetsk yesterday and met with DNR officials and former prisoners of war and were presented with “documentary materials on war crimes from the part of Ukraine.”
Today the group is “collecting evidence of Ukrainian war crimes” in Donetsk, Yenakievo, Uglegorsk and Debaltsevo.
Tomorrow the delegates will participate in a roundtable discussion with DNR officials titled “The international information war against the DNR: methods and forms of resistance.”
They will also meet with French volunteers fighting on the separatist side.
There are several known French fighters operating with Russian-backed units, many of them with far-right links:
Anton Shekhovtsov's blog
An Internet TV channel of (pro-)Russian extremists has published a video featuring four Frenchmen who came to Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine to fight against Ukrainian forces. They do not say their names and think that France will not know of their participation in the terrorist activities in Ukraine.
The Front National itself has an extensive history of collusion with both Moscow and the separatists in Donetsk. Members have participated in the internationally denounced ‘elections’ and sham referendums in the Donetsk, Lugansk and Crimea regions.
In May last year, Emmanuel Leroy, a key adviser to Front National Leader Marine Le Pen, visited Donetsk and participated in a forum discussion to mark the first anniversary of the DNR’s self-proclamation as an independent state.
Clostermann himself has made his views on the the Kremlin clear in the past:
Translation: Putin is a true head of state. We support Putin, it is perhaps him who will save France from disaster.
— Pierre Vaux
Both sides in the conflict have accused each other of shelling with mortars yesterday.
According to the Ukrainian military, Russian-backed fighters used 120 mm mortars, as well as grenade launchers, to bombard Ukrainian defensive positions outside Krymskoye, on the southern banks of the Seversky Donets river in the Lugansk region.
Colonel Oleksandr Motuzyanyk, a military spokesman for the Presidential Administration, claimed at noon today that the village of Vodyanoye, outside Mariupol, had been shelled with 120 mm mortars.
The pro-separatist Donetsk News Agency (DAN) claims meanwhile that Ukrainian troops shelled the villages of Kominternovo and Shirokaya Balka with 82 mm mortars.
According to DAN, at least 10 shells fell on Kominternovo, just northeast of Vodyanoye, with the attack beginning at around 14:00 yesterday. Shirokaya Balka, west of Gorlovka, was, DAN reports, shelled at around 22:30.
This morning’s report from the Ukrainian military’s ATO Press Centre claimed that the situation in the Donbass had further deteriorated, with 35 attacks recorded over 24 hours.
To the north of Donetsk, Kiev reports attacks with small arms, grenade launchers and heavy machine guns on Peski, Opytnoye, Avdeyevka and Verkhnetoretskoye.
To the west of the separatist-held city, positions near Marinka were attacked with rocket-propelled grenades, while snipers targeted Ukrainian troops in Krasnogorovka, further to the northwest.
In the Gorlovka area, Russian-backed fighters reportedly conducted attacks near Novgorodskoye, Zaytsevo and Mayorsk.
Northeast of the town, there was a skirmish between Ukrainian and Russian-backed fighters near the village of Semigorye, while machine gun and sniper attacks were reported near Luganskoye, on the highway between Artyomovsk and Debaltsevo.
In the south of the Donetsk region, in addition to the attack on Vodyanoye, Colonel Motuzyanyk reported small-arms fire on Ukrainian positions near Granitnoye, east of Volnovakha.
— Pierre Vaux
The Lugansk Information Centre, an official news site for the self-declared Lugansk People’s Republic (LNR), reports that the “subgroup” of the trilateral Contact Group, which comprises representatives from Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE, is due to begin talks today in Minsk.
According to an unnamed “source close to the negotiations,” the talks were due to begin at 12:30 (9:30 GMT). They are due to continue tomorrow with a meeting of “all the remaining working groups,” which are tasked with negotiations on specific issues.
Darka Olifer, press secretary for former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, who heads the Ukrainian delegation at the Contact Group, wrote on her Facebook page this morning that the main Contact Group will meet for the first time tomorrow.
The newly appointed Russian delegate to the Contact Group, former Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, flew into Kiev yesterday, but President Poroshenko went on a visit to Boryspil rather than meet with him.
Kommersant was told by one MP, a member of the Opposition Bloc, which was formed from the remnants of Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions and is sympathetic to Moscow, that Poroshenko’s departure from the capital “seemed strange, as the President could simply have declined to meet [Gryzlov] by citing other duties.”
But Sergei Taran, a political scientist considered close to Poroshenko, said that Gryzlov had not flown to Kiev “for the sake of Poroshenko,” but “for the sake of Obama and Merkel.”
“The anti-Russian sanctions directly depend on Russia’s fulfilment of the Minsk agreements. The Kremlin will demonstrate ‘dedication to the cause of peace.’ It is precisely because of this that the Russian Minsk group will be reinforced by the ‘peace-loving’ Gryzlov, and it was therefore necessary for him to make a demonstrative landing in Kiev.”
Kommersant reports that Roman Bessmertny, a Ukrainian delegate to the political ‘subgroup’ in Minsk, the talks tomorrow will continue to the “technical process” begun before the end of last year. Bessmertny stressed that there was little chance of a dramatic shift, saying that:
“We’re not talking about any revolutionary approaches to at the talks.”
— Pierre Vaux