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Ukraine’s new leader vows quick end to revolt

Ukraine’s newly elected president vowed on Wednesday to quickly end an eastern revolt after a ferocious army push to reclaim a major airport saw more than 40 pro-Russian rebels killed.

The deserted streets of the million-strong rust belt city of Donetsk echoed with bursts of morning gunfire after a devastating two-day firefight in which Ukrainian fighter bombers flushed out more than 100 gunmen who had seized the region’s most important air hub.

Ukrainian officials said they were now in control of the airport and working hard to secure the release of four European civilian observers abducted at a rebel roadblock outside the city on Monday.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said it had briefly lost contact on Wednesday with another 11-member team of unarmed monitors who were “stopped at a roadblock” west of Donetsk before being released.

Meanwhile, president-elect Petro Poroshenko and his pro-Western cabinet were bracing for a fresh crisis with the looming threat of Russia’s vital gas flows being halted at the start of next week.

European leaders called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to help his smaller neighbour by using his leverage with the gunmen to end a rebellion that has claimed around 200 lives since they grabbed effective control of a dozen towns and cities in early April.

Moscow has thus far failed to reach out to Poroshenko — a 48-year-old billionaire candymaker elected by a resounding margin on Sunday — and cautioned Ukraine that its stepped-up military offensive could only backfire.

Poroshenko told Germany’s Bild daily ahead of a Wednesday visit to Berlin by Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk that Ukraine had simply run out of options and could no longer put up with the violence threatening its very existence as a sovereign state.

“We will end this terror. A real war is being waged against our country,” said Poroshenko.

Some analysts think Kiev has ratcheted up its campaign believing that the 40-point margin of Poroshenko’s victory will make it hard for Moscow to question his legitimacy and order its troops to “protect” the east’s ethnic Russians.

The Kremlin reaffirmed on Wednesday that it “respected” the will of Ukraine’s voters but also denounced the army’s “provocative” actions as another step toward strife and discontent.

“There can be no justification for the punitive operation being conducted by the Kiev authorities,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

– Chechen connection –

The regional capital of Ukraine’s coal and steel district was largely deserted on Wednesday with sporadic reports of gunfire after a devastating battle for control of the region’s main air hub.

The gleaming Sergei Prokofiev International Airport — rebuilt at a cost of $900 million (660 million euros) for the Euro 2012 football championship — stood with its vast glass facade shattered after the army used fighter bombers and helicopters to capture the building on Tuesday.

But Ukraine’s volunteer National Guard force reported an undisclosed number of “losses” during a new rebel offensive in the neighbouring eastern region of Lugansk.

Rebel commanders meanwhile admitted that fighters from Chechnya — a Muslim region of Russia that once fought for its independence but is now under a Kremlin-backed strongman’s control — were enlisted in the separatist brigades.

“Chechens are Russian people,” the rebel “Donetsk People’s Republic” government head Aleksander Borodai told reporter.

“They consider this land their own motherland, just like any other city, town or village in the Russian Federation.”

Kiev has long argued that the rebels commanders had links to Russia and did not represent the true will of the people of eastern Ukraine.

Borodai added that he had no information about a four-member OSCE team that Ukrainian officials said were abducted by rebels outside Donetsk on Monday.

“I know that the law enforcers of our Donetsk Republic are looking for them and I hope that they find them,” the rebel leader said.

– Gas threat –

Ukrainian premier Yatsenyuk flew to Berlin for urgent energy security talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel that come less than a week before Europe faces another possible reduction in Russian gas supplies.

Russia and Ukraine launched their third gas war in less than a decade after the ouster of a Kremlin-backed president in February prompted Moscow to nearly double Kiev’s gas price.

Ukraine refused to pay in protest and has since balked 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 its debt by Thursday.

Putin pointed out on Wednesday that Russia had not received any payments since November but was still willing to negotiate a lower price for Ukraine — 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.