Last-ditch talks held in Minsk between Ukrainian, Russian, German and French leaders dragged on till dawn as they struggled to reach a consensus on how to end the 10-month long conflict that has claimed more than 5,300 lives. Reuters quoted diplomatic sources that the four countries will sign a document later in the day, but its exact contents remain unclear.
The Belarusian capital Minsk was in full EU-diplomatic swing as German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Francois Hollande tried to broker a deal between arch-foes Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Poroshenko and Putin started the talks with a brief handshake Wednesday evening, in their first meeting since October last year.
By 3 am GMT (6 am local time), the high-level negotiations surpassed the ten-hour mark as the leaders negotiated in a meeting room in Minsk's presidential palace without any advisors. French president Hollande said before the talks began that he and Merkel would "try everything right to the end" to broker peace between the two sides.
More than 49 people were killed in just the few hours leading to the urgent talks, including a civilian who died from a shell attack on a hospital in the rebels' bastion Donetsk. Earlier in the day, 16 people also died following a rocket attack in what has gradually become the worst east-west conflict since the Cold War.
Poroshenko has made it clear that these talks are his last attempt to broker peace through dialogue. He warned that if the talks fail to stop the war, he would implement martial law in the country. This move would help free up military resources to fight back against the rebels, but may also lead to a cut in foreign investment, including a crucial International Monetary Fund loan that the cash-strapped economy so badly needs.
The Ukrainian president made it clear that he, along with Merkel and Hollande, would put on a unified front "with one voice" to Russia, who they accuse of backing Ukraine's rebels. If the talks fail, the United States may supply Ukraine with lethal weapons to use against the rebels, sparking fears among the European community of a full-scale war with Russia.