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NATO chief urges West to keep pressuring Russia over Ukraine
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BRUSSELS (AP) — NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is urging Western allies to maintain diplomatic pressure and sanctions on Russia until it respects the peace agreement in Ukraine.

After talks with NATO and Ukraine foreign ministers, Stoltenberg told reporters Wednesday of a "massive increase in cease-fire violations" in the conflict-torn east of the former Soviet republic. He said hundreds of explosions are sometimes reported daily, including many caused by heavy weapons banned under the Minsk peace accords.

"The international community must keep pressuring Russia to respect its obligations, especially while the security situation in eastern Ukraine remains so serious," Stoltenberg said. "It's important that economic sanctions be maintained."

More than 9,600 people have been killed since April 2014 in eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists are fighting Ukrainian government troops. Russia and Ukraine have blamed each other for the lack of progress in settling the conflict.

A meeting last week of foreign ministers from Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany intended to shore up the shaky peace process ended without result, raising fresh questions about whether the process will work.

"Diplomacy offers the only viable solution to the conflict in Ukraine, so it is unfortunate that last week's meeting of the Normandy format was inconclusive," Stoltenberg said.

The Minsk peace deal envisaged that Ukraine regains control of the rebellious region's border with Russia after granting the area a special status, holding local elections and offering amnesty to the rebels.

The European Union has imposed sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine conflict. Some of the measures are due to be extended in January but cracks have appeared in EU unity, and some countries with strong energy and business links to Russia want to see the sanctions eased.

NATO's ties with Russia have been under heavy strain since Russian forces annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, and Stoltenberg said the seizure will not be recognized.

After a freeze in talks, their main forum for dialogue — the NATO Russia Council — has met twice this year, without making progress.

NATO wants to hold a new meeting before Christmas, but Russia is reluctant to discuss Ukraine, which the allies insist must be on the table. Moscow may even wait until a new U.S. administration is installed next month to see if there is any policy change.