MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Talks expected to bring a much-anticipated cease-fire to the fighting in eastern Ukraine began Friday in the Belarusian capital even as the rebels kept pressing their offensive against a strategic port city.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had said he would sign a cease-fire if negotiators reached an agreement. The rebels also promised to declare a truce if a political settlement for the mostly Russian-speaking region is signed.
Ukraine’s former president, Leonid Kuchma, who represents the Kiev government at the talks, said he expects a deal will be signed.
“We came here for peace,” he told reporters before sitting down with representatives of Russia, the rebels and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Col. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s national security council in Kiev, said the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine were not up for negotiation.
Despite the positive statements, the rebels pressed ahead with their southeast offensive Friday on Mariupol, a key port of about 500,000 people that lies on the Sea of Azov, between Russia to the east and the Crimean Peninsula to the west, which Russia annexed in March.
Associated Press reporters heard heavy shelling Friday morning north and east of Mariupol, which appeared to indicate that rebels have partially surrounded the area and are probing its defenses.
The seizure of Mariupol would give the rebels a strong foothold on the Sea of Azov and raise the threat that they carve out a land corridor between Russia and Crimea. If that happens, Ukraine would lose another huge chunk of its coast and access to the rich hydrocarbon resources the Sea of Azov is believed to hold. Ukraine ready lost about half its coastline, several major ports and untold billions in Black Sea mineral rights with Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
“Mariupol is a strategic point. If we lose it then we could lose the entire coastline, the whole south of Ukraine,” said Tatyana Chronovil, a prominent Ukrainian activist at a mustering point for the volunteer Azov Battalion on the eastern edge of the city.
The rebel offensive follows two weeks of gains that have turned the tide of the war against Ukrainian forces, who until recently had appeared close to crushing the five-month rebellion in the east. Ukraine and the West say the rebel counterattack was spearheaded by regular Russian army units, a charge the Kremlin has denied.
Saying he is “ready to do my best to stop the war,” Poroshenko voiced “careful optimism” about Friday’s meeting. Earlier this week, he discussed the outlines of a peace deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who also expressed optimism about the chances of reaching an agreement.
For all the upbeat assessments, however, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was still skeptical of Russian motives.
“What counts is what is actually happening on the ground,” he said at the NATO summit in Wales on Thursday. “I have to say that previously we have seen similar statements and initiatives and they have been a smoke screen for continued Russian destabilization of the situation in Ukraine.”
Since mid-April, Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting government troops in a conflict the U.N. estimates has killed nearly 2,600 people. On Thursday, a NATO military officer told The Associated Press that the ranks of Russian soldiers directly involved in the conflict have grown.
Lysenko said seven servicemen had been killed over the past day, bringing the Ukrainian forces’ death toll to 846.
Leonard reported from Mariupol, Ukraine. John-Thor Dahlburg in Newport, Wales and Jim Heintz from Kiev, Ukraine, contributed to the story.