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10 Feb, 2015 20:46

Obama calls Putin before Minsk talks to discuss E. Ukraine peace deal

In the first talk in weeks, President Barack Obama called Vladimir Putin to discuss the crisis in eastern Ukraine and the upcoming meeting in Minsk to resolve the conflict, the White House said.

"President Obama underscored the rising human toll of the fighting and underscored the importance of President Putin seizing the opportunity presented by the ongoing discussions between Russia, France, Germany, and Ukraine to reach a peaceful resolution," the White House said.

According to the Kremlin, the discussion was focused on the “objectives of achieving a peaceful settlement of the acute crisis in Ukraine.”

“Vladimir Putin provided a detailed assessment of the situation in the southeast of Ukraine, with an emphasis on Russia’s recent proposals discussed, in particular, in the context of preparation for the [Minsk summit],” the statement reads.

“The presidents of Russia and the United States have emphasized the importance of a political – through dialogue – resolution of Ukraine’s internal conflict, the speedy cessation of bloodshed, and the protection of the legitimate rights of all Ukrainian citizens without exception, including in the southeast,” the Kremlin’s statement added.

READ MORE: Demilitarized zone, Kiev-Donetsk dialogue to be focus of Normandy 4 talks in Minsk - source

Just before the statement, a contact group including representatives from Kiev, eastern Ukrainian rebels, Russia, and OSCE finished their preparations for the Normandy Four format talks set to take place Wednesday in Minsk. TASS news agency sources said the group worked out a ceasefire plan for eastern Ukraine and ways to monitor it. A heavy weapons withdrawal scheme was also reportedly agreed upon.

Another option reportedly on the table in Minsk would be creating a demilitarized zone in Donbass. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Germany, and France are expected to insist that Russia takes responsibility to establish it, RIA Novosti sources said.

The run-up to the crucial meeting saw pressure mounting on the sides of the talks. German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the meeting is “another huge chance…to take a big first step towards de-escalation” in south-eastern Ukraine.

"But nothing has been resolved yet. The taking place of the summit alone is no guarantee of its success. I urge and expect Moscow and Kiev... to really seize this chance," Steinmeier said.

READ MORE: Obama, Merkel display ‘tactical disagreements’ over Ukraine

Following last week’s “substantive and constructive” five-hour talks between Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Francois Hollande, a number of Western media reported that an ultimatum was issued to the Russian President. Merkel reportedly vowed more sanctions if Russia finds new peace proposals from France and Germany to be unsatisfactory.

However, Russian presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov said that nobodyhas ever talked to the president [Putin] in the tone of an ultimatum – and couldn’t do so even if they wanted to.”

The European Union has already announced new sanctions against Russian officials and Ukrainian militias, but postponed enforcing them for a week, pending the new Minsk peace talks.

Despite failing to provide any convincing proof, the US and EU continue to blame Russia for masterminding the Ukraine conflict and supporting rebels who are fighting the Kiev government in the country's southeast – claims repeatedly denied by Moscow.

READ MORE: 'Ominous silence when shelling halts': 10 signs you live in war-torn Donetsk, E. Ukraine

The Ukraine conflict began last April when Kiev sent regular forces and volunteer battalions to the southeastern Donetsk and Lugansk regions, after rebels there refused to recognize the country’s new, coup-imposed authorities. The death toll in the Ukraine conflict has exceeded 5,300 people, with over 12,000 injured, according to UN estimates.