Ukraine's Poroshenko to hold peace talks with rebels 'this week'

Kiev (AFP) - Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Monday a fresh round of peace talks with pro-Russian rebels would take place this week following an international push to revive the stalled negotiations.

The talks will be held in the Belarussian capital Minsk on Wednesday and Friday and were announced after the Ukrainian leader spoke by phone with his counterparts from Russia, France and Germany.

"The heads of state agreed that the next meetings of the trilateral contact group in Minsk will take place... this week," said a statement on the president's website.

The talks, meant to enforce a tenuous peace agreement reached at negotiations in Minsk in September, will involve envoys from Kiev, Moscow and the pan-European OSCE security body.

The fixing of the dates ends more than two weeks of dithering over when the next negotiations would take place to end a conflict that has claimed more than 4,700 lives since April.

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko hosted the September negotiations and had travelled to the Ukrainian capital on Sunday in a bid to help get the peace process back on track.

The September accord produced deals on a truce and partial self-rule for the two Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine that rebelled against Kiev's Westward shift this year.

The agreements stemmed the worst fighting but were still followed by at least 1,300 more deaths.

Following Monday's joint phone conversation with Poroshenko, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin, France's Francois Hollande said the leaders called for urgent and "concrete progress" in the peace efforts.

They also called for the ceasefire to be "fully respected", the Elysee palace said in a statement.

Rebel negotiators in the self-proclaimed People's Republics of Lugansk and Donetsk said they were ready to attend this week's talks.

"It's important to find compromises at the negotiating table and not through weapons," Donetsk's Denis Pushilin was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.

Eight months of clashes have left Ukraine in economic ruins and stigmatised Russia as an international pariah that foments conflicts in countries with aspirations to break their Kremlin bonds.

- 'Nonsense'-

Hot on the heels of the Belarussian leader's visit to Kiev, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev arrived in the Ukrainian capital on Monday in what some analysts saw as a sign of old Moscow allies re-assessing their reliance on Russia.

Nazarbayev branded the conflict in Ukraine as "nonsense that should not be happening". And Lukashenko appeared to be referring to Putin when he said earlier: "They keep saying that Lukashenko is afraid of someone. But I am not afraid."

Both Belarus and Kazakhstan belong to a Russian-dominated economic union that once had aspirations to enlist Ukraine.

A senior Ukrainian official told AFP that Lukashenko and Nazarbayev -- criticised in the West for their intolerance of political dissent -- were trying to shake off the Kremlin and forge partnerships in Europe because Putin "is weak".

Some political analysts in Russia agreed.

"This is an unambiguous signal to Putin," said Konstantin Kalachyov of Moscow's Political Expert Group think tank.

"Both Kazakhstan and Belarus fear that their union with Russia will be engulfed by (an economic) crisis."

The veteran Kremlin leader is due to receive both Nazarbayev and Lukashenko on Tuesday for a summit of leaders from neighbouring nations that have formed a loose military bloc.

Despite grappling with the fallout from Western sanctions -- imposed over Moscow's alleged fomenting of the Ukraine conflict -- and plunging oil prices, Putin's domestic approval rate is still estimated at around 80 percent. His country's economic woes also do not seem to have significantly altered his public stance on Ukraine.

US President Barack Obama on Sunday dismissed the notion that Putin was "the chess master and outmanoeuvring the West and outmanoeuvring Mr Obama."

"Right now, he's presiding over the collapse of his currency, a major financial crisis and a huge economic contraction," he told CNN.