KIEV/MOSCOW: Ukraine’s new Western-backed president threatened Tuesday to revoke his one-week unilateral cease-fire in order to retaliate for the downing by pro-Russian rebels of an army helicopter that killed nine servicemen.
The announcement came hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin urged Kiev to extend the cease-fire and asked his legislature to revoke permission for Moscow to use force against its turbulent neighbor.
“The head of state does not exclude that the cease-fire regime may be revoked ahead of schedule in view of its constant violation by rebels who are controlled from abroad,” President Petro Poroshenko’s office said in a statement that was clearly referring to Russia’s alleged involvement in the 11-week insurgency.
Army officials said the Mi-8 helicopter was downed outside the rebel stronghold city of Slavyansk, which has absorbed some of the heaviest fighting in Ukraine’s Russified east.
The Ukrainian army earlier reported fighting outside the city despite a temporary cease-fire being ordered by a top rebel commander Monday evening.
Poroshenko added that gunmen had attacked government forces on 35 occasions since he ordered his troops to halt fire Friday evening. The statement added that Poroshenko met senior security officials Tuesday evening and “issued an order to open fire in response [to rebel] attacks without any hesitation.”
Poroshenko said he hoped to address the violence Wednesday with Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande.
His office later clarified that Poroshenko was referring to a proposed four-way conference call.
Earlier in the day, Putin called on Poroshenko to launch talks between the government and the rebels, as he moved to de-escalate the crisis by asking lawmakers in Moscow to rescind a resolution that allowed him to use the military on Ukrainian soil.
Putin said the weeklong cease-fire announced by Poroshenko should be accompanied by talks that would give people in the mostly Russian-speaking east a sense of security and protect their rights.
“We hope that the cease-fire will be extended and it will be used for substantive talks,” Putin said on a trip to Vienna. He blamed Ukrainian forces for breaking the cease-fire Tuesday by launching an airborne raid in Slavyansk.
Ukraine’s military said nine servicemen were killed when one of its helicopters was shot down in Slavyansk. Vladislav Seleznev, a spokesman for the Ukrainian operation against the rebels in the east, said that the rebels downed the Mi-8 helicopter with a shoulder-fired missile.
Before the downing of the helicopter, Poroshenko heralded the Russian leader’s move as a “practical step” toward bringing peace to the eastern part of Ukraine.
A Kremlin statement said Putin had asked the head of Russia’s upper house of parliament to cancel his March 1 request authorizing the use of force on Ukrainian territory. The chamber is expected to quickly rubber-stamp the move Wednesday.
Putin said he made the decision to “help create conditions for a peace process,” but added that Russia would continue to protect the rights of Russian speakers in Ukraine. “I hope that armed forces will not be needed for that,” he said.
Putin needs to show his support for Poroshenko’s peace plan ahead of Friday’s European Union summit to avoid further Western sanctions. The EU has warned it could introduce new sanctions that would target entire sectors of the Russian economy if Moscow fails to help de-escalate the crisis.