Ukraine rebels down army helicopter, killing 12 troops
Pro-Russian rebels shot down a Ukrainian helicopter Thursday, killing 12 soldiers including a general in one of the biggest setbacks in Kiev's seven-week campaign against insurgents in the separatist east.
The insurgent success dealt a heavy blow to president-elect Petro Poroshenko's repeated promise to quickly stamp out a conflict that has threatened the very survival of the splintered ex-Soviet state.
Separatists had earlier Thursday also confirmed they were holding four unarmed European monitors not far from where the helicopter was shot out of the sky with a sophisticated surface-to-air missile.
Fresh fighting was reported Thursday across large swathes of eastern Ukraine's rust belt as the violence that has already claimed more than 200 lives continued unabated.
Western-backed Poroshenko -- winner of 54.7 percent of Sunday's presidential vote -- must avert another showdown with Russia that could see Ukraine cut off from gas supplies by the start of next week.
But all attention Thursday was on Slavyansk -- an industrial city of 120,000 mostly ethnic Russians that was the first of a dozen towns and cities seized by the rebels in response to the February ouster in Kiev of a pro-Kremlin president.
"I just received information that near Slavyansk, the terrorists -- using a Russian man-portable air defence system -- shot down our helicopter," acting President Oleksandr Turchynov told a session of parliament.
Turchynov initially said that 13 soldiers and army General Volodymyr Kulchytskiy had died. But security officials and parliament sources later revised down the total death toll to 12.
A separatist spokesman had earlier told Russian news agencies that the helicopter was downed in a fierce battle that was still raging on the southern outskirts of Slavyansk.
The unnamed spokesman said that "several houses" belonging to civilians were on fire as a result of what he said was military activity.
Thursday's death toll is the highest since Ukraine lost 18 soldiers during hours of heavy fighting in the same Donetsk region on May 22.
Poroshenko -- a 48-year-old confectionery tycoon who once enjoyed good relations with top Russian officials -- reached out to Vladimir Putin on Wednesday by announcing that he intended to speak to the Kremlin chief when they both attend D-Day commemorations in Normandy on June 6.
The talks would be the first between the leaders of the two countries since a popular uprising chased a Kremlin-backed regime from power in February and installed a new administration intent on breaking Russia's historic hold on Ukraine.
- 'Acts of sabotage' -
The self-proclaimed "people's mayor" of Slavyansk earlier said that the four civilian monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) the rebels detained at a roadblock Monday were "all fine" and about to be set free.
"No one arrested them. We detained them. Now we will work out who they are, where they were going and why, and we will let them go," Vyacheslav Ponomaryov told Russia's Interfax news agency.
He suggested the team could have been involved in espionage.
A source at the organisation told AFP that the team -- a Dane, an Estonian, a Turk and a Swiss national -- included one woman and that negotiations for their release had been ongoing for some time.
The OSCE source added that the group appeared to have been at one stage held by Russian Cossacks who were helping the rebels in the eastern region of Lugansk.
A second group of 11 observers was detained in the neighbouring Donetsk province on Wednesday. The OSCE said it had managed to re-establish contact with them by the end of the night.
- Gas deadline -
Cash-strapped Ukraine has until midnight Thursday to pay Russia $2 billion under an EU-brokered agreement or face a halt in gas supplies next week that would also hit parts of Europe.
Russia and Ukraine launched their third gas war in less than a decade after Moscow decided to cancel its previous rebates and nearly double the price it charges Kiev for gas after the Kremlin-backed president's fall.
Ukraine refused to pay in protest and has since baulked at the terms of an interim deal negotiated with the help of a top EU energy official that would have seen Russia receive a down payment on Kiev's debt by Thursday night.
Russia's state-owned natural gas giant Gazprom said a failure to pay will scuttle negotiations on a lower gas price and prompt it to proceed with a cut-off that would hit parts of Europe next Tuesday unless a larger payment of more than $5 billion is made by Monday night.
Putin pointed out on Wednesday that Russia had not received any money for gas since November but was still willing to negotiate a lower price -- if it was paid on time.
"This cannot continue forever," Putin told a government meeting. "Everyone understands that perfectly well."
About 15 percent of all gas consumed in Europe is pumped in from Russia through Ukraine and analysts said it was in both sides' interest to find a compromise.
- Western security alliance -
Poroshenko said Thursday he no longer trusted Russia -- accused by both Kiev and Western leaders of orchestrating the insurgency -- and would seek a new defence alliance with Europe and the United States.
"We need a new defence alliance with the United States and Europe to protect Ukraine militarily," he told Germany's Bild daily.
The comments are likely to irritate Putin because he has insisted that Ukraine draft a new constitution that guarantees Kiev's neutrality in international affairs.
© 2014 AFP