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New clashes in eastern Ukraine threaten cease-fire (+video)

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Igor Tkachenko/Reuters

(Read caption) Members of the Special Monitoring Mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) to Ukraine walk past a house damaged by shelling, in the village of Spartak outside Donetsk on Friday.

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At least seven soldiers were killed in fighting overnight between government troops and pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine, the worst death toll since February's fragile cease-fire was signed. The violence comes amid renewed diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the year-long conflict.

Clashes between government troops and pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine had largely subsided following the cease-fire deal agreed to in the Belarusian capital of Minsk on Feb. 12. But in recent days observers have reported a flare-up in fighting on the outskirts of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk. As The Associated Press reports:

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Heavy shelling was heard in Donetsk late Monday evening and in the early hours on Tuesday. Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko told a televised briefing that six troops were killed and 12 wounded in a 24-hour period, while rebels reported one fighter dead and five wounded in the overnight clashes.

The death toll is the highest since the February cease-fire was signed.

Lysenko also reported civilian casualties, including two teenagers who were wounded in shelling in the Horlivka area, north of Donetsk.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has claimed at least 6,000 lives since last April – a month after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula – and left large parts of the country’s once industrial heartland in ruins.

The Ukrainian and Russian foreign ministers on Monday – meeting with their French and German counterparts in Berlin – called for the withdrawal of tanks and other heavy weapons by all sides. They also agreed to more rigorous monitoring by international observers to strengthen the shaky cease-fire that has held in eastern Ukraine since February, reports The New York Times.

After about four hours of talks, the ministers released a statement saying the situation in Ukraine “remains tense because of numerous cease-fire violations.” The statement voices “grave concern” about the recent uptick in fighting, but offers no serious diplomatic breakthroughs towards establishing a more lasting peace.

“We call on all sides to stop fighting and demonstrate their commitment to fully implementing the cease-fire and conclude the withdrawal of heavy weapons definitely,” it said. “We furthermore call for the withdrawal of mortars and heavy weapons below 100 millimeters, as well as all types of tanks.”

The meeting on Monday was the fifth time the four foreign ministers have met in the German capital since last summer, reports the Wall Street Journal. While primarily concerned with heading off the latest wave of violence, the diplomats also pushed to establish four working groups to “spur a more-formalized dialogue among separatist representatives, the Kiev government, and international officials on difficult issues such as security and humanitarian aid.”

But as the Journal reports, the obstacles towards reaching a lasting peace remain substantial:

Russia and Ukraine have clashed over how to implement the political stages of the Minsk deal, which are supposed to reintegrate the territories into Ukraine with increased local autonomy. Ukraine has offered more local powers after elections monitored by international observers. But Russia wants the rebels included in direct talks in Kiev, including on constitutional reforms, a move that Ukrainian officials say is aimed at undermining its attempts to integrate with the West.

Despite such challenges, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier insists that there is no alternative but to abide by the Minsk agreement.

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"Everyone knows that we have a long path ahead of us," he told reporters after the meeting, according to AP. "But we're going to do everything we can to continue this process.”