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NEWPORT, Wales — Cease-fire talks involving Ukraine, Russia and separatist rebels, Friday, may end months of fighting as leaders from the West stood ready to impose additional sanctions on Russia if the talks fail.

The talks in Minsk come as NATO holds its second and final day of a summit in Wales.

Hopes for a cease-fire did not stop Russian-backed rebels from continuing their offensive, as the sound of heavy shelling moved closer to the port city of Mariupol in southeast Ukraine, the Associated Press reports.

Taking Mariupol would give the rebels a strategically important foothold, because the city lies between Russia and the recently annexed Crimean Peninsula. If rebels are able to create a corridor connecting Crimea to Russia, Ukraine could lose even more valuable coastline.

Envoys from Ukraine, Russia, the rebels and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are to meet later Friday in Minsk, Belarus, for talks aimed at reaching a cease-fire agreement.

Russian president Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and rebel leaders have expressed optimism that the talks will prove fruitful.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, on the other hand, expressed skepticism. “What counts is what is actually happening on the ground, so it remains to be seen what it is, and I have to say that previously we have seen similar statements and initiatives and they have been a smoke screen for continued Russian destabilization of the situation in Ukraine,” he was quoted as saying by the AP.

The United Nations estimates that more than 2,600 people have been killed since the conflict began in April.

Contributing: The Associated Press

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