MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus will host talks between Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE security and rights organisation on the crisis in eastern Ukraine, President Alexander Lukashenko’s office said on Wednesday.
It did not say when the talks would take place but Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko asked Lukashenko to host them on Thursday and to focus on securing access to the site where a Malaysian airliner was brought down in east Ukraine.
There was no indication pro-Russian separatists fighting Ukraine’s army would attend the talks, although Lukashenko’s office said “all interested sides” were invited.
The talks are expected to involve Russia’s ambassador to Kiev, Mikhail Zurabov, and former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, who have met several times since the crisis in Ukraine began but have failed to secure a breakthrough.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted by RIA news agency as saying he welcomed the talks aimed at de-escalating the conflict which has plunged Russia’s ties with the West to their worst since the end of the Cold War.
“We are in favour of talks, we welcome any possibility which presents itself to that end and therefore we value the offer from Belarus,” Lavrov told a news conference on a visit to Tajikistan.
The fighting in eastern Ukraine prevented representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reaching the crash site on Tuesday for the third successive day.
“Decisions are being made on a political level on ensuring safety on the site,” Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesman for the OSCE in Ukraine, said on Wednesday. “Today, as far as we know, we won’t be going there.”
An OSCE convoy had earlier on Wednesday been stopped by rebels about 10 km (six miles) outside the city of Donetsk because of fighting further along the route, but OSCE officials later denied it had been trying to reach the crash site.
Poroshenko wants the talks in Minsk to also discuss the release of hostages Kiev says are being held by the rebels in east Ukraine, the Ukrainian presidency said in a statement on Facebook.
He appears to have turned to Belarus for help because the former Soviet republic is a Moscow ally but also has a solid relationship with Ukraine.
The regional authorities in Donetsk, one of the regions worst hit by the fighting in east Ukraine, said on Wednesday morning that 19 people had been killed in the past 24 hours.
Kiev’s military offensive has forced the rebels out of some areas they held except their strongholds in and around the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, and fighting has intensified since the deaths of 298 people when the airliner was brought down on July 17.
The West says the rebels probably shot the plane down by mistake and accuses Russia of arming them. Moscow denies this.
Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky, Natalia Zinets in Kiev, Aleksandar Vasovic in Donetsk and Thomas Grove in Moscow, Editing by Gabriela Baczynska, Timothy Heritage and Elizabeth Piper