VIENNA (AP) — Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Tuesday he is open to another round of international talks on easing the Ukraine crisis — if they include pro-Russian rebels in the east and south of Ukraine. But his Ukrainian counterpart said the insurgents have no place at such negotiations.
Lavrov also demanded that Ukrainian government troops end their armed assaults on rebel strongholds, as fighting flared for control of the strategic eastern city of Slovyansk. Ukraine's interior ministry reported 30 rebels and four government soldiers were killed in those clashes.
"The army should not intervene in the political process," he said, urging an end to its deployment against insurgents as a starting point to any settlement of the crisis.
Lavrov met in Geneva on April 17 with Ukraine Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and EU representative Catherine Ashton. The four agreed then to call for the dissolution of all illegal military formations in Ukraine. They also said those occupying buildings must leave them and be disarmed and suggested an amnesty for all anti-government protesters.
Instead of tensions easing, however, the Ukraine crisis has since escalated into a series of open clashes between government forces and rebels that the Ukrainian government says are armed in some cases with large-caliber weapons and mortars. That has cast a large shadow over the chances of the Geneva agreement taking hold.
The Russian-Ukrainian impasse on who should be represented at any new round additionally clouded hopes for a quick diplomatic fix to the Ukraine crisis
Lavrov, speaking outside a foreign ministers' meeting of the 47-nation Council of Europe, said a follow-up round would not "have any added value" unless representatives of the rebels are also invited.
"Those who protest ... want their voices heard," he told reporters. "They want to have an equal voice when it comes to deciding the fate of their own country."
Deshchytsia said there was no need, however, because "as the Ukraine government, we do represent all the regions of Ukraine."
"We agreed to have this meeting on the level of the foreign ministers and we think it should be continued in the same format," he said in separate comments to reporters.
With presidential elections less than three weeks away, Ukraine and its allies are keen to reduce any threat to the vote, which they see as providing added legitimacy to the government in Kiev. As Tuesday's session opened, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said "Russia is clearly intent on preventing or disrupting those elections."
He also said nations supporting Ukraine remain ready to find a diplomatic solution to reduce tensions generated by the pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine, but "that would require stronger Russian commitment."
Lavrov repeated Russian skepticism at the legitimacy of the voting, saying promised constitutional reform should be made public before any president is elected.
"The situation is bizarre," he said repeating Moscow's position that there should be the publication of a new constitution by autumn and elections by the end of the year.
While expressing support for free and fair elections that are independently monitored, he suggested those conditions were not being met.
"Scheduling elections in times when the army is used against parts of the population is not conventional," he said. "This is not Afghanistan."