Peace talks regarding the fighting in Ukraine begin in Belarus



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MINSK, Belarus — Peace talks aimed at reaching a stable cease-fire in Ukraine between its government forces and pro-Russian armed groups began on Wednesday, with the discussions to include a pullout of heavy weapons and an exchange of war prisoners.

Representatives of Ukraine, Russia, pro-Russia rebels and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe arrived at the venue in the capital of Belarus in the early evening. Media haven't been allowed access to the government residence where the talks are taking place.

A second round of the talks is set for Friday. Valeriy Chalyi, a deputy chief of staff for the Ukrainian president, said in Kiev that no definitive results are expected until then.

The negotiations are focusing on measures intended to ensure a lasting cease-fire in eastern Ukraine, where the fighting between pro-Russia separatists and the Ukrainian government forces has claimed more than 4,700 lives.

Previous rounds of peace talks in September produced a cease-fire and an agreement to pull back heavy weapons, but both sides have failed to agree on a line of division and heavy fighting has continued.

Hostilities have abated this month amid renewed peace efforts.

Leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany discussed the current peace talks in a conference call on Monday.

Heidi Tagliavini, the OSCE's lead figure since the talks began, has said a pullback of heavy weaponry, an exchange of all war prisoners and the delivery of humanitarian aid would top the agenda for the Minsk talks.

Denis Pushilin, one of the separatist leaders, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying the parties had reached a preliminary agreement on the prisoners' exchange and are now trying to finalize details. He said the rebels would also demand that Ukraine approve a law granting broad rights to the region.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko initiated such a law earlier this fall, but retracted it after separatists staged local elections in November without the government's approval. Ukraine and the West denounced that as illegal and destabilizing. Ukraine also has cut pensions and other financial services to the rebel areas.

The insurgency in the Donetsk and the Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine erupted in April following Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of fueling the rebellion with troops and weapons, accusations Moscow has denied. Europe and the U.S. have imposed sanctions on Russia.

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