MINSK (Reuters) - Pro-Russia separatists sat down for preliminary peace talks with Ukraine in the Belarussian capital Minsk on Monday saying they would be prepared to stay part of Ukraine if they were granted "special status", according to Russian news agencies.
In a statement issued before the so-called "contact group" met, the separatists also said one of their key conditions would be for Kiev to immediately end its military offensive.
The separatists issued their call as the Ukrainian military faced a run of reverses on the battlefield which Kiev has ascribed to support for the rebels from at least 1,600 Russian combat troops. Moscow denies its troops are in Ukraine.
Russia, in particular, has been pushing for a fresh meeting of the "contact group", in which Ukraine is informally represented by Ukrainian ex-president Leonid Kuchma.
Moscow's ambassador to Kiev and a senior official for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe also took part in Monday's meeting.
No major decision was expected from the talks, especially since Kiev has no official negotiators at the table, and Monday's meeting was likely to be the first of many.
The separatists' demands did not appear, at first sight, to be acceptable to Kiev since they would leave the rebels in control of the territories of Ukraine's industrialised east.
But the rebel leaders, whose positions are likely to be backed by Russia, will be counting on Kiev's recent military setbacks weighing on any final decision.
Andrei Purgin, one of the leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, arriving for the talks, told news agencies: "This is the beginning of the process. We do not today expect a substantive breakthrough."
"We have come with proposals to find common ground and end the war and people dying," he said.
Purgin said the separatists wanted recognition of special status for their territories with the right to conduct their own foreign trade policy to allow them to integrate with the Russian-led Customs Union.
This would fly in the face of the European integration policies of Kiev's pro-Western government, which has signed landmark association and free trade agreements with the European Union and aspires one day to being an EU member.
Reporting by Vladimir Kostin in Minsk; Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Andrew Roche