Europe

EU won't send armed force to Ukraine despite clashes

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Media captionA resident of a badly-shelled apartment building on the edge of Donetsk says there is "constant fighting, every single day", as Tom Burridge reports

EU leaders have told Ukraine they are worried about ceasefire violations in the east of the country but will not send armed peacekeepers there.

"We can only talk about a civilian mission, not military," European Council President Donald Tusk told a news conference in Kiev.

Earlier Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko said the EU or the UN should deploy peacekeepers to eastern Ukraine.

Pro-Russian rebels have been bombarding a village near the city of Mariupol.

On Sunday tank and mortar rounds pounded the village - Shyrokyne - near government-held Mariupol, a vital port city.

Mr Tusk said the EU would send a civilian "assessment" mission to Kiev, to explore ways to further boost security assistance for Ukraine.

The heavily armed rebels have been fighting government forces for a year in Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

The West accuses Russia of arming the rebels and sending in regular soldiers. Moscow denies that, insisting that any Russians on the rebel side are volunteers.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The talks brought together Mr Tusk (left), Mr Juncker (centre) and Ukraine's President Poroshenko

Violations

Mr Poroshenko says peacekeepers are needed to ensure proper monitoring of frontline areas and the rebel-controlled border with Russia.

Mr Tusk said: "We are concerned about reports of weapons still entering eastern Ukraine".

International OSCE observers were "not able to verify a withdrawal of heavy weaponry", he said.

Under the Minsk ceasefire deal signed in February both sides were supposed to pull heavy weapons back from the conflict zone.

Mr Tusk reiterated that EU sanctions against Russia would remain in place until the Minsk conditions were met in full.

On Sunday OSCE observers said they experienced the most intense shelling of Shyrokyne since fighting began there in mid-February. Heavy weapons including tanks were spotted in rebel-held areas near there, they said.

Fighting hits Ukraine's EU ambitions - by Tom Burridge, BBC News, Donetsk:

As the leaders met in Kiev, we could hear the steady boom of shelling in a bombed-out neighbourhood, on the edge of Donetsk.

Valentina, 54, emerged from her blackened apartment block, with most of its windows smashed, to tell us of "constant fighting, every single day".

"We're sick of all this," she said as tears filled her eyes. "It's affecting us psychologically."

We watched some 20 pro-Russian fighters travel back from the frontline on top of an armoured personnel carrier, and another group of around 20 replace them, heading towards the fighting.

A tank was parked up, idle for now. Tank shells were visible in the back of another vehicle. According to a rebel soldier, we were about 2km (one mile) from the frontline.

When you see and hear fighting on a daily basis in eastern Ukraine, at least some of the political and economic aspirations of European and Ukrainian leaders seem hollow.

The economic cost of the war undermines Ukraine's ambition for greater economic integration with the EU.

It also makes some political aspirations, like visa-free travel for Ukrainian citizens in the EU, highly unlikely.

Yet the EU leaders' visit is hugely symbolic. They are keen to show solidarity in the face of what they see as Russian-fuelled aggression in the east.

But the rebels will probably interpret the summit as another provocation.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Ukrainian government troops in Peski - a bitterly contested village near Donetsk

Calls for reform

EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker also attended the Kiev talks.

It is the first such summit since a key EU-Ukraine association agreement was signed last June. Talks will continue in Kiev on Tuesday.

The EU is anxious for Ukraine to enact far-reaching economic reforms to tackle unsustainable debts, inflation and widespread corruption.

The EU agreed to delay implementing the association deal with Ukraine until January 2016, in response to Russian complaints.

Russia is suspicious of the agreement, arguing that free trade could turn Ukraine into a conduit for cheap goods flooding into Russia.

Mr Juncker said Ukrainians' living conditions were "very difficult", and he pledged more EU financial assistance to help in the "painful" reform process. "Ukrainian citizens want to live in a corruption-free country," he said.

Reform of the heavily subsidised energy sector is a priority, BBC economics expert Andrew Walker says, as energy inefficiencies are a big drain on the national budget.