People queue to receive humanitarian aid at the Dombass Arena stadium in the eastern Ukrainina city of Donetsk on October 30, 2014
Brussels (AFP) - Hopes of a breakthrough rose Thursday as the EU opened the latest round of talks aimed at persuading Russia to resume gas deliveries to war-torn Ukraine in time for winter.
The EU-brokered talks in Brussels came as Kiev said pro-Moscow rebels killed another seven of its soldiers in eastern Ukraine and Russia vowed to recognise elections organised by separatist rebels in the region on Sunday.
Against a broader backdrop of geopolitical tensions, NATO warned it was "vigilant" in the face of increased Russian military activity in European airspace earlier this week.
Following an inconclusive marathon round overnight Wednesday, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak said he hoped to sign the gas deal with Ukraine later on Thursday as he returned to Brussels for the talks.
"We hope that today all our agreements will be formalised with the signing of the necessary documents," Novak was quoted as saying by the RIA Novosti news agency.
EU sources confirmed the three-way talks had resumed late Thursday.
EU officials said a deal was close even though talks stalled before dawn on Thursday when Russia demanded that the European Union first agree with Ukraine how to pay Kiev's outstanding bills and finance gas deliveries through to March 2015.
"The European Commission must reach an agreement with Ukraine over the question of financing," a spokesman for Russian gas giant Gazprom told AFP in Moscow. "Otherwise, negotiations make no sense."
In Kiev, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said he would ask the United States and Germany for "additional financial instruments for Ukraine that would help stabilise the budget and pay our energy bills."
- EU says deal close -
Earlier this month, EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger negotiated an outline deal whereby Ukraine would pay $3.1 billion by the end of the year to settle its outstanding bills to Russia.
In return, Russia would cut the price for deliveries through to March 2015 by some 20 percent to $385 (302 euros) per 1,000 cubic metres.
Oettinger said at the time an agreement was close but instead, it quickly fell apart when it became clear Ukraine could not pay and promptly asked the European Union for a new loan of 2.0 billion euros.
Even though Oettinger put chances of a deal at only 50 percent going into the marathon round on Wednesday afternoon, EU officials have become more upbeat.
"Jointly prepared documents laying down a common understanding have been prepared and are now with the respective governments in Moscow and Kiev for approval," a spokeswoman for Oettinger said.
European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso said a deal was "within reach" and called on both sides "to seize the opportunity and conclude the negotiations."
Speaking later, he said he hoped "we will have an important moment... because apparently we now have an accord that the Commission mediated, organised between Russia and Ukraine."
Barroso gave no further details and officials declined to comment.
The EU gets about a third of its gas from Russia, of which about a half transits via Ukraine, a former Soviet bloc country.
The EU wants to avoid a repeat of 2006 and 2009 when Russia turn off the taps on Ukraine, disrupting deliveries onwards to Europe during two very cold winters.
In June, several months after the Ukraine crisis began with the popular overthrow of a pro-Moscow president in Kiev, Russia cut supplies again, demanding that Kiev settle its outstanding bills and pay up front for any future deliveries.
- Continued loss of life -
The wider crisis showed no immediate sign of improvement.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the US-led alliance remained vigilant after an upsurge in Russian military activity in European airspace earlier this week.
In response, several NATO countries launched a series of intercepts, meant especially to help reassure east European allies unnerved by Russia's intervention in Ukraine.
The latest Ukraine military deaths bring the total to 160 since a ceasefire was agreed in September, while more than 3,700 people have died since the start of fighting in April after Russia annexed Crimea.
The EU has progressively imposed tough economic sanctions on Russia for its alleged military intervention in Ukraine. Moscow has retaliated with punitive measures of its own.
Member states agreed earlier this week to leave the sanctions in place after a regular review, and on Wednesday, they condemned Moscow's willingness to recognise the planned rebel polls.