President Petro Poroshenko has suggested Ukraine's uneasy ceasefire will be likely be extended, while separatist fighters said they would accept a 72-hour extension. The current truce expires later in the evening.
Ukrainian President Poroshenko said on Friday that his first order of business on returning to Kyiv would be contemplating a longer ceasefire agreement with pro-Russian separatist groups in Donetsk and Luhansk.
"This decision will be taken by me when I return to Ukraine," he told reporters. "I will have to conduct consultations with the minister of defense, the defense council… The decision will be taken today." The Russian news agency Interfax reported, citing unnamed sources, that Poroshenko had assured EU leaders in Brussels of an extension. Several agencies cited diplomatic sources in Brussels as saying the same. The current truce was set to expire at 10 p.m. local time (1900 UTC) on Friday.
Poroshenko was at an EU summit in Brussels earlier on Friday, on what he called "maybe the most important day for my country after independence" from the Soviet Union in 1991. The president signed an EU Association Agreement for Ukraine, which can serve as an early step on the road to EU accession. Moldova and Georgia signed similar deals with the EU. Former President Viktor Yanukovych's decision not to sign the EU agreement as planned last November helped set off the protests that led to a change of government in Kyiv.
Angela Merkel said at the Brussels conference that "we expect progress in the coming hours" in Ukraine, saying that if Russia did not move to stabilize the situation in Ukraine, "we are also ready to take more far-reaching measures." EU leaders outlined potential plans for further Russian sanctions on Friday, but refrained from imposing them before Monday.
French President Francois Hollande on Friday said that he, Merkel, Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin would speak over the phone on Sunday to seek agreement on how to progress.
Putin, meanwhile, speaking in Moscow had lobbied for a long-term extension to the ceasefire.
"Most important is the securing of a long-term ceasefire as a necessary condition for substantive talks between the authorities in Kyiv and representatives of the southeastern regions," Putin said.
Rebels open to extension
Pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk on Friday said they would accept an extension of the ceasefire. Alexander Borodai made the comments after talks in Donetsk brokered by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Representatives from Ukraine's other breakaway region Luhansk, Russian ambassador Mikhail Zubarov, and former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma were among those participating.
Borodai also said the rebels would release four OSCE observers still held hostage "in the nearest days." Four other OSCE staff were freed early on Friday. However, the leader of the self-proclaimed "People's Repulic of Donetsk" said that his forces would not yield control of Ukrainian checkpoints they control on Russia's border, one of Kyiv's preconditions for a peace deal.
The ceasefire, currently one week old, has not been entirely observed. The most notable violation was the downing of a Ukrainian helicopter by rebels in the east which killed nine servicemen.
msh/jm (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)