The election commission in Kyiv has bemoaned the "worsening" situation in eastern Ukraine, barely a week ahead of presidential elections, as leaders from most of the country gathered for talks in Kharkiv.
Ukrainian leaders gathered for their second set of national unity talks in Kharkiv on Saturday, much closer to the country's more restless regions than last week's opening round in Kyiv.
German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger moderated the discussions, with interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and former presidents Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma among those in attendance.
"We, as the Ukrainian government, are more interested than most in [ensuring] that peace and calm return to this country," Yatsenyuk said at the start of the talks. Ischinger, meanwhile, issued a simple appeal:
"Ukrainians, please use words and not weapons," the chair of the annual Munich Security Conference, formerly a close ally of longstanding German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher.
Insurgents from the neighboring regions of Donetsk and Luhansk were not invited, with authorities in Kyiv saying they will not deal with "terrorists." The pro-Russian militants, in turn, have said they will only negotiate on the withdrawal of Ukrainian government troops, and the recognition of their independence. Both regions claimed overwhelming support for independence in May 11 public votes not recognized by Ukraine, the EU or US.
Election commission troubled, Russia dubious
Prior to the talks, the latest gun battle between government troops and separatist fighters took place near a border crossing with Russia. According to Ukrainian border forces, separatists freed the self-declared governor of Luhansk region, Valery Bolotov, after he was taken into custody seeking to return to Ukraine from Russia. It was not immediately clear whether there were any casualties in the skirmish.
State media in Ukraine on Saturday reported that the election commission was worried that "the situation is worsening" in the east of the country ahead of planned presidential polls on May 25. The fighting between Ukraine's "anti-terror" troops and the separatists, especially in Donetsk and Luhansk, could make the election impossible to carry out. The commission said that preparations towards the vote had not even begun in around a dozen voting districts there.
The Russian foreign ministry issued a statement on Saturday saying it doubted the elections' success, given Ukraine's security situation.
"Can elections held amid the thunder of guns really meet the democratic norms of the electoral process?" the ministry asked in a statement, calling on Kyiv to "immediately end military operations" in the country's southeast.
Steinmeier defends current course
The EU and US have so far said that existing sanctions against Ukrainian and Russian individuals would not be expanded unless the May 25 polls are severely disrupted. Ukraine's acting foreign minister, Andriy Deshchytsia, appealed for a tougher German line in a newspaper interview published on Saturday in Die Welt.
His German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who will meet Deshchytsia in Berlin on Monday, said in a separate newspaper interview that diplomatic channels should remain open with Russia. Steinmeier has also faced domestic criticism for his approach to the unrest.
"It would be irresponsible, if we did not do everything possible to work towards a de-escalation of this dangerous situation and to seek a peaceful solution," Steinmeier told the Thüringische Landeszeitung. While no approach guaranteed success, Steinmeier said that he still favored "cooperation instead of confrontation" with Moscow.
msh/slk (AFP, dpa)