Ukraine truce shaken

By Vladimir Isachenkov

Pro-Moscow rebels kill nine in attack on military helicopter.

Ukrainian soldiers patrol a checkpoint in the Donetsk region. Ukraine says its troops are still being fired on despite a ceasefire. Photo / AP
Ukrainian soldiers patrol a checkpoint in the Donetsk region. Ukraine says its troops are still being fired on despite a ceasefire. Photo / AP

The shaky ceasefire in Ukraine was thrown into peril yesterday when pro-Moscow separatists shot down a Ukrainian military helicopter, killing nine servicemen.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko warned he may end the weeklong truce ahead of time.

The deadly attack came a day after the rebels vowed to respect the ceasefire, which began last week.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, played the peacemaker, urging Ukraine to extend the truce and sit down for talks with the rebels. He also moved to rescind a parliamentary resolution authorising him to use the Russian military in Ukraine.

Poroshenko declared the ceasefire as part of a plan to end two months of fighting between government troops and pro-Russian insurgents in the east.

The violence, which erupted after the Kremlin's lightning annexation of Crimea in March, has left hundreds dead.

The ceasefire has been repeatedly broken by sporadic clashes, and it was violated again yesterday when rebels used a shoulder-fired missile to down a helicopter in Slovyansk, a key flashpoint in the insurgency.

Watch: Military plane shot down in Ukraine

Poroshenko said in a statement that the insurgents had fired on Ukrainian positions 35 times since the ceasefire was announced, and he instructed Ukrainian soldiers to fire back "without hesitation" if attacked.

"The President doesn't exclude that the ceasefire could be lifted ahead of time, taking into account its constant violation by the rebels controlled from abroad," Poroshenko's office said.

It added that Poroshenko expects that his phone call, set for today, with Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande would lead to "practical steps by Russia to disarm and recall mercenaries from Ukraine and ensure the reliable protection of the border".

The United States and Nato have accused Russia of supporting the rebellion in the east with troops and weapons. Moscow has denied that, saying Russian citizens who joined the insurgents were acting on their own.

During a trip yesterday to Vienna, Putin employed a combination of pressure and goodwill intended to protect Moscow's interests without triggering heavier Western sanctions, which are likely to be a topic of discussion during a European Union summit this weekend.

Putin said that the Ukrainian demand that the insurgents lay down their weapons within a week was unrealistic, explaining that they would be reluctant to disarm for fear of government reprisals.

He called for a longer truce to be accompanied by peace talks, arguingthat they should lead to constitutional amendments and other legal changes that would protect the rights of Russian-speakers in the east.

Speaking shortly after the helicopter was shot down, Putin blamed Ukrainian forces for breaking the ceasefire yesterday by launching an airborne raid in Slovyansk.

He did not mention the downing of the helicopter.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the US is "reserving judgment" about Putin's latest moves, saying "it's actions, not just words, that will be critical". AP

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