Italy's foreign minister says he will visit Ukraine and Russia in the coming weeks to "intensify" efforts to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine, as he took up the post of chairperson-in-office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
"Our main testing ground is the search for a solution to the Ukrainian crisis," Angelino Alfano told a meeting of the OSCE in Vienna on January 11, announcing that he planned to visit Ukraine and Russia on January 30-February 1.
Since April 2014, more than 10,300 people have been killed by fighting between Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed separatists who control parts of the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Cease-fire deals announced as part of the Minsk accords -- September 2014 and February 2015 pacts aimed at resolving the conflict -- have failed to hold.
The latest cease-fire agreement was meant to begin on December 23, but both sides have accused each other of cease-fire violations since then.
The Ukrainian military said on January 11 that three of its soldiers were killed and four wounded in clashes that took place in eastern Ukraine during the previous 24 hours.
A Defense Ministry statement said the separatists violated the cease-fire seven times in skirmishes where separatists fired machine guns, grenade launchers, and mortars.
The separatists, meanwhile, claimed that two civilians were wounded in mortar and gunfire attacks by Ukrainian government forces.
Presenting his agenda as chairman of the OSCE, Alfano urged the sides to fully implement the Minsk agreements, adding that recent "mutual provocations have created a climate that risks compromising the confidence-building measures adopted thus far by the parties."
A recent exchange of prisoners between Kyiv and the separatists was one of the "few positive signs," but much more needed to be done, especially on humanitarian access, the Italian minister added.
The OSCE supervised the long-awaited prisoner swap, which enabled hundreds of former captives to return to their homes for the New Year holiday.
Hundreds of unarmed observers are monitoring the conflict as part of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine.
Discussions about deploying a peacekeeping force have heated up since September, when Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed deploying UN peacekeepers along the line separating Ukrainian government forces and the Russia-backed separatists.
The plan swiftly drew criticism from both Kyiv and the West, largely because of concerns that deployment only along the front line would cement Russian control over separatist-held territory and do nothing to stop Russia from sending fighters and weapons into Ukraine.
Putin later said he was open to adjustments to his initial proposal, but no agreement has been reached.