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Foreign ministers visit eastern Ukraine as fresh ceasefire begins

SLOVIANSK, Ukraine (Reuters) - Foreign ministers from Germany, France and Ukraine visited eastern Ukraine on Thursday, hours after Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces agreed to a ceasefire in a conflict that has killed over 9,600 since spring 2014.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault listen to the OSCE inspectors near the bridge that was bombed by separatists in early 2014 and is now being rebuilt in Sloviansk, Eastern Ukraine on September 15, 2016. REUTERS/Andrea Shalal

“The ceasefire gives us a chance to work on the other things that are so important...We’ve had six months of stagnation and that has worsened the security situation,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters on Thursday.

He spoke in the shadow of a bridge in the town of Sloviansk that was bombed in May 2014 by Russia-backed separatists, and which is now being rebuilt by Ukraine at an estimated cost of 1.3 million euros (£1.1 million).

Steinmeier and French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told reporters late on Wednesday the truce could provide new momentum in the implementation of the much-violated Minsk peace agreement signed 18 months ago.

“If the weapons are actually put down on both sides, and hopefully not just for seven days, then this would be a chance for a sustainable de-escalation, a chance we haven’t had in a long time,” Steinmeier said on Wednesday.

Kiev and Western countries accuse Russia of providing military backing to the eastern Ukrainian insurgency which began after Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian Crimea. Russia denies any direct role in the conflict which has brought Kremlin relations with the West to the lowest level since the Cold War.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia hoped the foreign ministers’ visit would encourage Ukraine to fulfill its promises under Minsk, which include holding regional elections in the east.

“If this visit contributes to Ukraine’s implementation of commitments, then it can only be welcomed,” he told journalists.

Ukraine has said it cannot hold the elections until security conditions allow and it has regained control of its border with Russia - another point of the Minsk agreement that is yet to be implemented.

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OSCE officials said there had been one reported ceasefire violation after the truce began at midnight, but the situation was far quieter than in recent weeks, when a previous ceasefire was disrupted by hundreds of violations.

The Ukrainian military said rebels had opened fire on Ukrainian positions four times since the truce came into force, while separatist officials also accused the Ukrainian side of not fully respecting the truce, separatist website DAN reported.

In a human rights report on the eastern conflict published on Thursday, the United Nations said the situation had been worsening in recent months and remains deeply unstable.

“In fact there is a real risk that a new outbreak of violence could happen at any time,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.

The foreign ministers were briefed on the situation by international monitors from the 57-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is currently headed by Germany. The OSCE has 704 monitors in Ukraine from 45 countries, including 583 in eastern Ukraine, according to the German foreign ministry.

OSCE officials showed the ministers their minehunting equipment and discussed their daily work at a large site in Kramatorsk, which is home to one of five OSCE hubs in eastern Ukraine.

The observers carry out 70 to 100 patrols a day, each with two vehicles and covering a total of 7,000 to 10,000 kms of ground per day.

The ministers are among the highest-level delegations to travel close to the 487-km (303-mile)front line.

Steinmeier delivered new equipment to the OSCE observers, including 1,200 pairs of gloves, binoculars, GPS trackers and clothing.

He lauded the service of the observers on Thursday, noting that many had been targeted and shot at during their work, and it was critical to ensure their safety.

The ministers also met patients in a psychological rehabilitation clinic, and with some of the 1.7 million people displaced within Ukraine by the conflict. An additional 1.1 million people have fled to neighboring countries.

In its report, the UN said 188 civilians had been killed in the conflict in the past three months, pushing the total casualty count to 9,640.

Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets and Alessandra Prentice in Kiev; Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow