KEIV, Feb 5- French President Francois Hollande said Thursday he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were taking a new peace plan to Kiev and Moscow after a surge in deadly fighting in eastern Ukraine.
Hollande and Merkel were expected in Kiev after US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived for talks with Ukraine’s leaders who are pushing for Washington to supply weapons to fight the pro-Russian rebels.
As the European leaders set out on the biggest peace push so far to end the near 10-month conflict, at least 19 people were killed in fresh clashes as the separatists push deeper into government-held territory.
“Ukraine is at war. Heavy weapons are being used and civilians are being killed daily,” Hollande told journalists in Paris.
“We will propose a new solution to the conflict based on the territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
He said the plan would be discussed with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Thursday and Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Friday, but warned that diplomacy “cannot go on indefinitely”.
In Brussels, NATO was set to agree a major boost to the alliance’s defences near its Russian borders, including six command centres and a quick-reaction spearhead force of 5,000 troops in response to the Ukraine conflict.
Despite growing talk of Washington arming Ukrainian forces, a State Department official said only that Kerry was to unveil $16 million (14 million euros) in fresh US humanitarian aid, particularly to help the displaced.
Kerry met Poroshenko ahead of talks with Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin.
He will then meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at a security conference in Munich on Saturday after the three way Moscow meeting.
– Advanced weaponry –
Ukraine and its Western allies accuse Moscow of sending thousands of regular army troops and weapons to support the rebels who launched an uprising against Kiev in April.
And while Moscow has repeatedly denied the allegations, the separatists are equipped with the advanced weaponry of a regular army.
The fighting has claimed more than 5,350 lives since April, including some 220 in just the past three weeks, according to the United Nations.
Weekend peace talks in Minsk — where a now-tattered truce was agreed in September — collapsed after rebel leaders stayed away.
As the bloodletting has intensified, Washington has been reviewing its position to see if it should bow to a growing clamour to send heavy weapons to Kiev.
“We continue to evaluate as the situation on the ground changes the security needs of the Ukrainians. But no decisions have been made,” the US official said.
US President Barack Obama’s nominee for defence secretary said on Wednesday he was likely to support providing weapons.
Ashton Carter, expected to be confirmed soon as Pentagon chief, told a US Senate committee that “we need to support the Ukrainians in defending themselves”.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said ahead of a meeting of defence ministers that the move to boost defences in eastern Europe was in response to Moscow’s “aggressive actions,” but nevertheless purely defensive.
The NATO ministers meeting in Brussels are expected to agree on a so-called “spearhead” force of around 5,000 troops which will be able to deploy anywhere within a “few days,” Stoltenberg said.
– ‘Russian adventurism’ –
In a move that is likely to irk Moscow, NATO will also decide on six “command and control” units in Eastern European nations to ensure that the new force could hit the ground running.
Carter said that bolstering NATO forces in the Baltic states would be “a deterrent to any Russian kind of adventurism”.
Washington has so far provided only non lethal assistance to Ukraine, including flak jackets, medical supplies, radios and night vision goggles, fearful of becoming embroiled in a proxy war with Russia.
But the failure of economic sanctions to force Russia to halt what the West sees as Moscow’s military support for the separatists has prompted a second look at the option.
In the rebel bastion of Donetsk shelling killed eight civilians and wounded 33 more over the past 24 hours, the insurgent-controlled city hall said.
Kiev loyal authorities said six civilians had been killed around Donetsk, and military spokesman Vladyslav Seleznyov said that heavy shelling killed five Ukrainian soldiers and wounded 29 around the region.