New OSCE chair Italy to visit Ukraine, Russia

A prisoner swap in Decmeber by the Ukraine government and Russian-backed separatist rebels was one of a "few positive signs", OSCE chair Angelino Alfano said

Italy's foreign minister said Thursday that he will visit Ukraine and Russia to "intensify" efforts to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine, as part of Rome's new role as OSCE chair.

"We believe it is important to intensify the negotiations" to end the conflict, Angelino Alfano told a meeting of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, announcing his January 30-February 1 trip.

Speaking at OSCE headquarters in Vienna, he added that recent "mutual provocations have created a climate that risks compromising the confidence-building measures adopted thus far by the parties."

A recent prisoner swap by the Ukraine government and Russian-backed separatist rebels was one of a "few positive signs" but much more needs to be done, especially on humanitarian access, Alfano said.

The war in the former Soviet republic broke out in April 2014 and has claimed more than 10,000 lives, while also leading to a dramatic deterioration of relations between Russia and the West.

Ukraine and its Western allies accuse Russia of funnelling troops and arms across the border to help the separatists, an allegation Moscow denies.

Implementation of two peace agreements known as the Minsk accords, the second dating from 2015, has been slow and ceasefire violations are common.

The OSCE, whose members include Russia, Ukraine and the United States, has around 700 unarmed observers in Ukraine, including some 500 in the east.

In its last report the OSCE recorded 26,000 ceasefire violations between December 11 and 22, a 25 percent jump over the previous two weeks.

Both Washington and Moscow back a possible UN peacekeeping force, but they differ widely on the mandate of any such mission and where it would operate.

Italy will hold the OSCE chairmanship for the rest of the year.