Pro-Russia rebels and Ukrainian authorities have agreed on a humanitarian corridor to evacuate civilians from the epicentre of fighting in eastern Ukraine as German and French leaders prepare to take a peace plan to Moscow.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande were set to hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin a day after discussing their proposals with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
The diplomatic blitz comes amid fierce fighting that prompted Washington to consider providing the beleaguered Ukrainian military with weapons, in turn sparking European fears of wider hostilities.
Rebel leaders said they had reached agreement with Ukrainian authorities to allow the evacuation of civilians from Debaltseve, a key railway hub that has become the main target of a rebel offensive because of its strategic location.
The ceasefire around Debaltseve held yesterday as a convoy of several dozen buses drove from nearby Vuhelhirsk towards Debaltseve, where a shrinking population has been trapped in the crossfire and left without power, heating and running water for almost two weeks.
Zorian Shkiryak, an adviser to the Ukrainian interior minister, said on Facebook: “The green corridor has been confirmed.” Eduard Basurin, a rebel spokesman in Donetsk, said about 1,000 civilians were expected to be evacuated yesterday.
The Franco-German initiative comes as US secretary of state John Kerry signalled that US president Barack Obama was considering supplying arms to Kiev government forces - a move opposed by Paris and Berlin.
Downing Street has insisted Britain is playing an “active role” in Europe’s response to Russian aggression in Ukraine, after David Cameron faced accusations that he has become a “diplomatic irrelevance” as France and Germany spearhead the diplomatic effort to end the conflict.
Britain’s former top Nato commander, General Sir Richard Shirreff, said the UK should be playing a major role in the efforts to resolve the crisis amid fears that it could lead to an all-out European war.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “This is the most serious crisis to have faced Europe, arguably, since the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. There is a threat of total war.
“The UK is a major Nato member, it is a major EU member, it is a member of the UN Security Council, and it is unfortunate that the weight that the British Prime Minister could bring to efforts to resolve this crisis appear to be absent.”
Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said Gen Sir Richard’s comments were a “serious indictment” of Mr Cameron’s foreign policy.
Downing Street has sought to play down suggestions of a diplomatic rift, insisting that the European leaders’ initiative was part of the so-called Normandy Group process, which began during last year’s D-Day commemorations, in which France and Germany have taken the lead.