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Russia, Ukraine agree on withdrawal of smaller caliber arms in effort to implement Minsk plan

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BERLIN — Russia and Ukraine agreed Monday to call for the pullback of smaller caliber weapons from the front lines in eastern Ukraine as part of a fresh push to end the region's yearlong conflict.

Foreign ministers from the two countries — meeting with their French and German counterparts in Berlin — also agreed to support international monitors and establish four working groups to address the most pressing issues faced by people in the embattled region, where Russian-backed separatists are fighting Ukrainian government forces.

The meeting took place amid fresh clashes in the Donetsk area and near the village of Shyrokyne, by the Azov Sea.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who hosted the meeting, insisted afterward that the parties had no alternative but to abide by agreements forged in the Belarusian capital Minsk in February and September.

"Everyone knows that we have a long path ahead of us," Steinmeier told reporters shortly after midnight. "But we're going to do everything we can to continue this process."

PHOTO: French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, left, Spanish Foreign Minister Manuel Garcia Margallo, right, and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walker Steinmeier attend a ceremony in commemoration of the victims of the Germanwings Airbus A320 crash on March 24, 2015 in the French Alps, at the airport of Barcelona, Spain, Monday April 13, 2015. The foreign ministers of Spain, France and Germany have attended a wreath-laying ceremony at Barcelona's airport in memory of the 150 victims of the Germanwings plane crash last month. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, left, Spanish Foreign Minister Manuel Garcia Margallo, right, and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walker Steinmeier attend a ceremony in commemoration of the victims of the Germanwings Airbus A320 crash on March 24, 2015 in the French Alps, at the airport of Barcelona, Spain, Monday April 13, 2015. The foreign ministers of Spain, France and Germany have attended a wreath-laying ceremony at Barcelona's airport in memory of the 150 victims of the Germanwings plane crash last month. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

He said the new deal calls for the withdrawal of mortars and heavy weapons below 100 mm (3.94 inches) caliber, as well as all types of tanks.

Steinmeier said the four diplomats also agreed on the need to quickly establish four working groups to address security issues; the process for holding a local election in rebel-occupied areas; restart the exchange of prisoners of war; and improve the dire economic situation in eastern Ukraine.

Speaking to Russian media after the talks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the parties were unable to agree on Ukraine's demands for the deployment of peacekeepers.

He also criticized laws passed recently by the Ukrainian parliament, which he said were eroding the Minsk deal.

"We underlined the need to fulfill the Minsk agreements in their entirety, not just in the military segment, but also in political, economic and humanitarian spheres," Lavrov said, according to Russian news agencies.


Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report

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PHOTO: French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, from left, pose for a group photo at Villa Borsig, the official guest house of the foreign ministry, in Berlin on Monday, April 13, 2015 before their meeting to discuss implementation of the peace agreement brokered in Minsk, Belarus in February.  (Clemens Bilan/Pool Photo via AP)
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