DONETSK, Ukraine -- The foreign ministers of Russia, Poland and Germany on Tuesday signaled progress toward a cease-fire in Ukraine, even as up to 40 separatists were reported to have been killed in a fierce battle for control of an airport in the east of the country.
Talks aimed at a diplomatic resolution to the unrest have achieved some progress in recent days, the ministers said, but no firm agreement.
Past efforts to broker a truce, including one by European and American officials, failed because separatists insisted that Russia did not speak for them at the talks.
Exactly who does speak for them is unclear.
On Tuesday, the militant wing of a rebel group in Slavyansk, an epicenter of the violence, said it had arrested the “people’s mayor” of the city, Vyacheslav Ponomarev, who had been the public face of the pro-Russian uprising there, a Russian television channel, LifeNews, reported.
Authority had already been shifting to a Russian national, a militant who goes by the nickname Strelok, or “The Shooter.”
It was unclear whether the shift was related to the cease-fire talks.
Speaking after the negotiations, held in St. Petersburg, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov of Russia said he was confident that after the latest round of talks, any decision by the Ukrainian government to halt its military activities in the east would be met with a similar cease-fire by the rebels.
Mr. Lavrov also welcomed a proposal by Ukraine’s president, Petro O. Poroshenko, to open a humanitarian corridor for civilians to leave conflict areas.
“The key to a de-escalation of the situation, of course, in our belief, is the cessation of this military operation against the protesters,” Mr. Lavrov said.
“Namely then, the people that you call separatists, I am sure will answer reciprocally.”
The Russian government has claimed to have no formal role in the insurrection, and no control over the fighters.
Yet a number of senior rebel leaders have openly identified themselves as Russian citizens, and at least 31 rebels recently killed in fighting with the Ukrainian forces were found to be Russian nationals.
Mr. Lavrov met with the Polish foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, and the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Mr. Sikorski said he reassured Russia over its concern that Ukraine, once consolidated under a pro-Western government, intended to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Mr. Sikorski said the NATO question was not on the agenda on Tuesday, though he offered no other guarantees.
Mr. Steinmeier said that the talks had achieved “momentum,” and that “after many months of conflict in Ukraine, we can see a faint light at the end of the tunnel,” the German news media reported, citing the Foreign Ministry.
Despite the peace overtures, fighting continued in eastern Ukraine.
Overnight on Tuesday, a Ukrainian military spokesman said its forces had repelled a separatist attack on an airport outside Kramatorsk, to the south of Slavyansk, and killed an estimated 40 separatist fighters.
The report could not be confirmed.
Phone calls to a rebel spokeswoman in the area went unanswered.
In separate incidents, the Ukrainian military said that two soldiers had been wounded by gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades in fighting near Slavyansk, and that rebels in eight trucks mounted with machine guns had attacked an airport near Luhansk, but failed to seize it.
It was unclear how long the Ukrainian military and other agencies would need to set up the escape corridor for civilians that Mr. Poroshenko announced on Tuesday.
There were also questions about whether the separatists, whose rationale for fighting is that they are protecting residents from a “fascist” government in Kiev, would cooperate in a humanitarian effort by the government.
Mr. Poroshenko’s instructions to create a corridor for people displaced from the east came after he met on Tuesday with the leaders of the country’s security and military services.
Mr. Poroshenko, who was sworn in as president on Saturday, used his inauguration speech in part to offer safe passage to Russian fighters wishing to return home and amnesty for rebels who put down their weapons.
But he has said he will not negotiate with armed insurgents.
Source: The New York Times