AP Interview: NATO head says Ukraine ceasefire top priority

AP Interview: NATO head says Ukraine ceasefire top priority

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MUNICH (AP) — The head of NATO said Friday his top priority is supporting French and German efforts to bring about a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine, but if a truce is negotiated it must be monitored so the Russian-backed separatists don't use it to regroup and rearm.

Speaking to The Associated Press on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg described the current situation in Ukraine as "critical."

He said every effort must be made to help German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande in the diplomatic offensive they launched this week.

After flying to Kiev Thursday to meet with Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko, the two leaders traveled to Moscow Friday to sit down with Russian President Vladimir Putin to try and lay the groundwork for a truce.

Stoltenberg noted that a previous cease-fire agreement "was undermined and violated by the separatists," and said observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe would have to be allowed access needed to monitor the implementation of any new agreement.

"What we have seen with the previous cease-fire is it is extremely important that we have effective systems of monitoring, of making sure the cease-fire is respected" he said. "But now our focus is on supporting the initiative that has been taken to try and find a political solution."

U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO's top military commander, told the AP Thursday that the Russians and Russian-backed separatists had taken advantage of an earlier break in combat operations to prepare for yet more attacks.

Russia acknowledges some of its citizens are fighting among the rebels, but rejects Ukrainian and Western charges that it's backing the insurgency with troops and weapons.

Stoltenberg planned one-on-one meetings Saturday at the conference with Poroshenko and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, as well as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

He said he planned to explain to Lavrov NATO's responses to the "aggressive actions of Russia in Ukraine," which includes a decision Thursday to more than double the size of a rapid reaction force to 30,000 troops.

"Also I will reiterate the importance that Russia act in accordance with its international obligations, and to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine and stop the support of the separatists," he said.

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