Foreign minister quartet meets in Berlin on next steps in Ukraine

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The foreign ministers of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine met Friday in Berlin to discuss next steps in ending the Ukraine conflict, amid awareness that progress has been slower than hoped.

Germany’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier said: “We can be glad that the ceasefire regime has been observed to a certain extent.” He said “some serious challenges” remained, including organizing fair local elections in separatist-held areas.

Getting humanitarian assistance to the eastern regions was also vital, Steinmeier told reporters.

Russia’s Sergei Lavrov echoed that sentiment, telling reporters that the humanitarian situation in the conflict regions had not improved.

Moscow’s foreign minister blamed the Ukrainian government for blocking access to rebel-held areas.

“There are few crossing points, which adversely impacts the sphere of social services,” Lavrov said, according to Russian state news agency TASS.

In many points, parties to the conflict have been lagging behind the timetable set down in February to end the conflict. The aim of completing all the steps of the plan by the year’s end seems no longer achievable.

But Lavrov was optimistic that tanks and guns with a calibre under 100mm would be withdrawn from the front lines by November 12.

“We have sent a collective signal to all parties to the process to keep to these terms,” Lavrov said.

The meeting was also attended by France’s Laurent Fabius and Ukraine’s Pavlo Klimkin at a government guesthouse, the Villa Borsig, in north-west Berlin.

The group had last met on September 12.

A ceasefire between Ukrainian government troops and pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east has largely held since September, and there had been exchanges of prisoners, a German spokeswoman noted ahead of Friday’s meeting.

She added that recent progress on the withdrawal of small-calibre artillery and mortars could be used as a model to do the same with heavy weapons.

The chief international monitor in Ukraine, Ertugrul Apakan, said this week in Vienna that the light weapons removal was advancing, but added that “weapons of all calibres continue being used” in sporadic ceasefire violations.

“The situation remains volatile,” said Apakan, who heads the monitors of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

De-mining eastern Ukrainian areas is another key step that should be taken soon, Apakan said, adding that OSCE observers would define and map priority areas for removing mines.

Germany has urged more effort to resolve the conflict on a political level, including a constitutional reform and granting unfettered access of OSCE monitors to the entire conflict region.

Some 8,000 people have been killed and close to 18,000 wounded since April 2014, when fighting broke out between Moscow-backed separatists and government forces, according to the United Nations.

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