EU urges Russia to work with new Ukraine leader as toll mounts

DONETSK, Ukraine - Ukraine said Tuesday it had recaptured the airport in the eastern city of Donetsk after deadly battles with pro-Moscow rebels, while EU leaders urged Russia to work with the country's new president.

Caught up in the drama in Donetsk were a team of international monitors with the OSCE who have gone missing after being detained at a checkpoint.

As fear gripped the city's streets, Russian President Vladimir Putin called on Ukraine to end its "punitive" operation in the rebel-held east and for talks between Kiev and the insurgents.

The battle for the main transport hub in Ukraine's industrial heartland erupted Monday just hours after president-elect Petro Poroshenko vowed to take a tough stand against the "terrorists".

"The airport is under our full control. The enemy suffered heavy losses. We have none," Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said.

EU leaders, at a Brussels summit, urged Russia to work with Poroshenko and to continue withdrawing its troops from the country's border.

Russia should also use its leverage on the armed separatists to de-escalate the situation" in the east, said a draft EU summit statement seen by AFP.

The EU has applied visa bans and asset freezes to a series of high-profile Russian and Ukrainian figures judged to have helped in Moscow's annexation of Crimea or stoked separatist violence in eastern Ukraine.

Poroshenko said Monday the military would press its offensive against the insurgents who now control about a dozen cities and towns in the east.

At the same time, the 48-year-old pro-Western chocolate tycoon said he was ready to engage with the Russian leadership and was optimistic a meeting with President Vladimir Putin could be arranged soon.

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a visit by Poroshenko was "not being considered".

The EU leaders also pressed on Poroshenko the need to make all efforts on his side to ease the conflict and to continue to adopt economic and political reforms to bring Ukraine up to European standards.

US President Barack Obama called the president-elect and offered him "the full support of the United States" but UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged Ukraine to use "exclusively peaceful means" to regain control in the east.

Makeshift blockades

Donetsk mayor Oleksandr Lukyanchenko said two civilians and 38 combatants had died and another 31 were wounded in the fighting, including Russians and possibly Chechens.

An AFP correspondent reported seeing body parts and blood splattered near a bullet-riddled truck on the airport road, where makeshift blockades had been set up with dumper trucks and piles of tyres.

Combat jets and helicopter gunships struck the airport terminal Monday after it was seized by scores of gunmen just a day after Ukraine's presidential election won by Poroshenko.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has played a key role in trying to end the crisis, said it had lost contact since Monday with four monitors - a Dane, an Estonian, a Swiss and a Turk - while on patrol in Donetsk.

An official in Vienna said they had been held at a checkpoint before contact was lost, while a Turkish foreign ministry official said: "We have learnt through unofficial channels they are safe and sound." The OSCE also announced that two Ukrainian journalists accused of "spying" were taken hostage by separatists in the Luhansk district.

Monday's air strikes represented the most forceful action yet by Kiev in its battle to crush a bloody rebellion that has raged in the coal and steel belt since early April, threatening to plunge the former Soviet state into all out civil war.

In his first comments on Ukraine since Sunday's election, the Kremlin said Putin called "for an immediate end to the military's punitive operation in southeastern regions and the establishment of peaceful dialogue between Kiev and regional representatives".

Speaking in Brussels, French President Francois Hollande said he would hold "face to face" talks with Putin in France on June 6, with the Ukraine crisis high on the agenda.

Hollande said he believed Putin would "now recognise" Ukraine's new president and "ensure there is a de-escalation" in Ukraine.

'Visit not being considered'

Poroshenko said Monday the military would press on with its offensive against the insurgents who now control about a dozen cities and towns in the east.

On Tuesday, Ukraine's foreign ministry summoned an official from the Russian embassy in protest at "armed terrorists" being allowed to enter Ukraine from Russia.

Sunday's election had been viewed as crucial if Ukraine was able to turn the page on months of turmoil that unfolded following the February ouster of Kiev's pro-Kremlin leadership by a pro-EU protest movement.

Kiev and the West accuse Russia of pulling the strings of the insurgents who took up arms against the central government in the wake of the Kremlin's seizure of the Black Sea Crimean peninsula in March.

The insurgency, which has now cost around 200 lives, thwarted polling in much of the east and rebels have defiantly refused to recognise Poroshenko's election.

But Western leaders have hailed the outcome and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was now time to "continue the path of internal reconciliation".

As well as trying to end the unrest and introduce constitutional reforms to address the concerns of the Russian minority, Poroshenko must also try to avert economic collapse after years of Soviet-era mismanagement and rampant corruption.

Ukraine is also trying to negotiate a deal to prevent Russia from cutting off gas supplies from next week if it fails to pay a multi-billion dollar bill.