A new round of talks aimed at finding a lasting solution to the Ukraine crisis has started in the Belarusian capital, Minsk.
The so-called Contact Group includes representatives of Russia, Ukraine, pro-Russian separatists, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Participants include Ukrainian former President Leonid Kuchma, Russia’s Ambassador to Kyiv Mikhail Zurabov, OSCE Special Representative Heidi Tagliavini, and four leaders of Ukraine's separatist Luhansk and Donetsk regions: Aleksandr Zakharchenko, Igor Plotnitsky, Aleksey Karyakin, and Andrei Purgin.
The ultimate goal is to find a lasting solution to a conflict that has killed more than 3,000 people since April.
Seeking to end a deadly conflict with pro-Russian separatists and keep the country of 45 million in one piece, Ukraine's parliament adopted legislation on September 16 granting broader autonomy to rebel-held parts of the country’s east for a three-year period.
Ukrainian lawmakers also granted amnesty to participants in the conflict, excluding those who have committed “serious crimes.”
Russia described the moves as a "step in the right direction."
But they were greeted with a mixed response by the insurgents, with some rebel leaders saying they would settle for nothing short of independence.
The new legislation is in keeping with a September 5 deal in which Ukraine's government and the rebels, who hold large swaths of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, agreed on a cease-fire and on steps to end the conflict.
The fragile truce has largely held despite sporadic fighting.
On September 18, U.S. President Barack Obama met with visiting Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko at the White House.
Obama condemned what he called Moscow’s “aggression” in Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in March, and in eastern Ukraine.
Obama praised Poroshenko saying that his leadership has "been critical at a very important time in Ukraine's history."
He also pledged to continue helping Kyiv find a diplomatic solution to the crisis the country faces.
Poroshenko thanked Obama for the "enormous" support the United States has shown Ukraine.
Poroshenko said a U.S. "team" would be in Ukraine next week to review Ukraine's energy situation and needs with winter coming soon.
Based on reporting by AFP, Interfax, and ITAR-TASS