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As Ukraine fears mount, Europe pushes peace plan, US pushes military aid

French President Francois Hollande, left, reads a note given by his aide, right, during a press conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Thursday, Feb. 5, 2015. The leaders of France and Germany were carrying a new peace initiative to the Ukrainian and Russian capitals Thursday, amid a flurry of high-level diplomacy to end what French President Francois Hollande called a war on Europe's edge.
French President Francois Hollande, left, reads a note given by his aide, right, during a press conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Thursday, Feb. 5, 2015. The leaders of France and Germany were carrying a new peace initiative to the Ukrainian and Russian capitals Thursday, amid a flurry of high-level diplomacy to end what French President Francois Hollande called a war on Europe's edge. AP

In a new push for peace in eastern Ukraine, the leaders of France and Germany announced Thursday they were heading to Kiev and Moscow with a proposal to end the fighting. The surprise move came as the U.S. edged toward offering Ukraine lethal military aid.

The flurry of high-level diplomacy aimed to end the resurgent fighting in eastern Ukraine that is threatening European security. France and Germany hoped this time they could come up with a peace deal that both Ukraine and Russia could agree to.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was already visiting Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, and in Brussels, NATO prepared to boost its forces Thursday in response to Ukraine’s unrest and Russia’s increased military forcefulness.

Fighting between Russia-backed separatists and government forces picked up in January after a month of relative calm, with more than 220 civilians killed in the past three weeks alone, according to the United Nations. The U.N. has sharply criticized both sides for indiscriminate shelling and called for a temporary truce.

At least three people were killed in overnight shelling in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, local officials said Thursday, amid fierce fighting in several areas of eastern Ukraine.

French President Francois Hollande said he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel would travel to Kiev on Thursday and then to Moscow the following day, with a proposal “based on the territorial integrity of Ukraine.” In a sign of the importance of the initiative, this will be Merkel’s first trip to Moscow since Ukraine’s conflict broke out a year ago.

“It will not be said that France and Germany together have not tried everything, undertaken everything, to preserve the peace,” Hollande said.

Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Siebert said “given the escalation of violence in the past days, the chancellor and President Hollande are intensifying their months-long efforts for a peaceful settlement of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.”

In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that Putin, Merkel and Hollande will discuss “what the three nations can do to help put a quick end to a civil war in southeastern Ukraine, which has exacerbated in recent days with mounting casualties.”

Kerry came to Ukraine to show support for its embattled government as the Obama administration weighs sending arms to Kiev to help it fight Russian-backed separatists. He brought $16.4 million in new U.S. humanitarian aid but the Ukrainian government is anxious to use the visit to reiterate its plea for lethal aid.

President Barack Obama has opposed the idea of sending weapons to Ukraine but sources in his administration say this position could change in the light of recent fighting.

Officials with Kerry said he would discuss those needs with Ukrainian officials as well as new initiatives to resurrect a moribund cease-fire and resume a political dialogue to end the conflict.

Germany remains fiercely opposed to sending arms to Ukraine, a position that German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier reiterated Thursday. Speaking after meeting with his Latvian counterpart, Edgars Rinkevics, in Riga, Steinmeier said it would not improve the situation if “we now bring more weapons to the region.”

“We believe that we must make another attempt to finally bring the violence to an end,” he said, according to the dpa news agency.

In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the defense ministers meeting Thursday are expected to approve boosting the size of the alliance’s Response Force from 13,000 to 30,000, in reaction to Russian actions in Ukraine.

Russia has vehemently denied allegations of helping the rebels in Ukraine. The Kremlin acknowledged that Russian volunteers are fighting in eastern Ukraine but insists that Moscow has not sent its troops or weapons to help the rebels.

Russia has expressed concerned about NATO’s buildup in eastern Europe while defending a heavy military presence at its border with Ukraine.

Hollande appeared to be offering a nod to Putin on one of his key demands: that Ukraine stay out of NATO.

“France is not favorable to Ukraine’s entry into NATO, let us be clear,” Hollande said Thursday. “We have to speak the truth to all the countries that are around us. … For the Russians who are worried … We have to settle this problem among Europeans. We are on the same continent.”

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Corbet reported from Paris. David Rising in Berlin, Matthew Lee in Kiev, John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.

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