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Merkel blasts Russia as bloody Ukraine clashes rage

[KIEV] Ukraine said on Sunday that eight more civilians and two soldiers had been killed in fighting with pro-Russian insurgents as Germany accused the Kremlin of meddling in eastern European states' drive toward the EU.

The latest casualties across the Russian-speaking Donetsk and Lugansk regions came two days ahead of the planned start of a ceasefire aimed at winding down one of Europe's deadliest conflicts in decades.

The United Nations believes the eight-month uprising in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 4,300 people and driven nearly a million more from their homes.

It has also paralysed much of Ukraine's industry and left the nation of 45 million dependent on tens of billions of dollars in emergency global aid.

The diplomatic fallout from the violence threatens to be equally damaging and lasting.

Charges of Kremlin backing for the insurgents have eroded much of the trust built between Moscow and the West in the post-Cold War era and left Russian President Vladimir Putin more isolated than ever in his dominant 15-year rule.

The West fears the Russian strongman is trying to create a "frozen conflict" that keeps the Ukrainian leadership off-balance and continually dependent on Moscow.

Russia's violation of "the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine must not be allowed to stand," German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Die Welt newspaper.

Dr Merkel added that "Russia had created difficulties" for both Ukraine and its fellow ex-Soviet republics of Moldova and Georgia after they had made "their own sovereign decisions" to sign trade agreements with the EU.

The pro-Russian revolt erupted weeks after the February ouster in Kiev of a Kremlin-backed president who had ditched a landmark EU pact that would have paved the way to Ukraine's membership in the 28-nation bloc.

The Kremlin flatly denies the charges and accuses Washington of orchestrating last winter's pro-European protests in Kiev and across more nationalistic parts of western Ukraine.

Mr Putin this week said Ukraine will eventually regret the episode and realise the mistake it made when it finally ratified the EU deal three months ago.

A dramatic recent upsurge in violence that some Ukranian officials and media believe killed hundreds of fighters - and possibly Russian special forces covertly operating in the east - have pushed all sides towards agreeing a new truce.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has proclaimed Tuesday to be a "day of silence" in the war zone and the rebel command has since pledged to respect it.

The two foes hope to iron out the final details of what is meant to be a brand new truce agreement on Tuesday in the Belarussian capital Minsk.

The talks will include envoys from Russia and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) - the Cold War-era security body that helped the sides sign an earlier peace deal in September which failed to stop the war.

"Ukrainian representatives were here on Saturday," Lugansk separatist leader Igor Plotnitsky told reporters.

"We have reached a preliminary (truce) agreement. A final deal will be signed on the ninth." Mr Plotnitsky said the proposed agreement includes a clause requiring the two sides to pull back their heavy weapons and establish a buffer zone across the war zone.

But he also added that it would allow both rebel and government fighters to "return fire" if the truce terms are breached.

The European Union - its economy teetering on the brink of another recession - is hoping that Tuesday's agreement will not only end the violence but also allow it to lift sanctions against Russia when they come up for review in July.

Dr Merkel had previously spearheaded Europe's diplomatic initiatives in the conflict because of Germany's importance to Russia and Washington's strained ties with Moscow.

But she has had limited success with Putin and now appears ready to hand over the diplomatic baton to France - a country that has traditionally enjoyed friendly relations with Russia.

French President Francois Hollande - flying home from Kazakhstan - held impromptu talks with Mr Putin at a Moscow airport on Saturday that diplomats said had been co-ordinated with Dr Merkel in advance.

Mr Putin told reporters after the meeting that he backed the latest peace push and was concerned that the September deal was being violated "from both sides".