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'Significant Progress' Reported At Ukraine Peace Talks In Berlin

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has said "significant progress" had been made toward a resolution of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Speaking after a three-and-a-half-hour meeting with his French, Russian, and Ukrainian counterparts in Berlin on September 12, Steinmeier said the talks had been "less confrontational" than previous ones and that the ministers "made headway in some critical things."

Steinmeier said the warring sides were now "very close" to an agreement on withdrawing weapons from the front line between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed separatists.

More than 7,900 people have been killed in Ukraine’s east since the fighting began in April 2014.

Ukrainian and rebel forces have blamed each other for repeated breaches of a cease-fire agreement reached in Minsk in February, but both sides are now broadly respecting a renewed truce that came into effect on September 1.

Steinmeier said all parties reaffirmed that the truce “now needs to be further consolidated and secured."

Germany's top diplomat also said there was some progress on the legal groundwork toward holding local elections in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine scheduled its vote on October 25, while self-proclaimed leaders of the rebel-controlled Luhansk and Donetsk regions said they would hold their own elections on October 18 and November 1, respectively, drawing protests from Kyiv.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said differences remained on the issue, but "the general impression is that these differences can be overcome."

Earlier in Kyiv, the secretary-general of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Lamberto Zannier, said the cease-fire had held for more than 10 days, opening space "to make progress on a political level."

Zannier told the AP news agency that he had just visited the southeastern city of Mariupol and nearby Shyrokyne, and found the situation to be calm.

The area, located on the front line between Ukrainian forces and separatists, has been the scene of recent fighting.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has repeatedly criticized Ukraine for failing to implement the Minsk peace deal, including by continued shelling of rebel-held areas, also welcomed the cease-fire on September 12.

"It's heartening that the main thing is the cessation of shelling of the Donbass from the side of the [Ukrainian] armed forces as well as the so-called volunteer battalions of Ukraine," he said in Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula that was annexed by Russia in March 2014.

"I think that today this is the main achievement,” he added.

The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany are due to meet in Paris on October 2 to discuss efforts to resolve the conflict in Ukraine.

With reporting by dpa, AP, AFP, and Reuters

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