Separatists kill seven Ukraine soldiers

This is the heaviest loss of life for government forces in a single clash.

FILE:Rebels attacked with grenade-launchers and automatic weapons near a village 20 km from Kramatorsk. Picture: AFP.

KIEV/MOSCOW - Pro-Russian separatists ambushed Ukrainian troops on Tuesday, killing seven in the heaviest loss of life for government forces in a single clash since Kiev sent soldiers to put down a rebellion in the country's east.

With the uprising and Russia's annexation of Crimea poisoning East-West relations, Moscow retaliated against US sanctions by hitting aerospace projects, including refusing to extend the life of the International Space Station, a showcase of post-Cold War cooperation.

In Kiev, Ukraine's defence ministry and state security service said the troops were killed and seven others wounded when their armoured column was ambushed near the town of Kramatorsk, one of several hot spots in the largely Russian-speaking east where the army has had scant success against the rebels.

About 30 rebels, who had taken cover among bushes along a river, attacked with grenade-launchers and automatic weapons near a village 20 km from Kramatorsk, the ministry said in a statement on its website.

"In all, as a result of the prolonged fighting, six members of the armed forces were killed. Eight soldiers were wounded, one of them seriously," it said. The state security service (SBU) said later that the seriously wounded soldier had died while being taken to hospital.

Rebel leaders held referendums in two eastern regions on Sunday which they said backed self-rule overwhelmingly. While Kiev and the West denounced the votes as illegal, the rebels called on Monday for their regions to become part of Russia. Moscow has stopped short of endorsing their bid for annexation.

Before the Kramatorsk incident, Defence Minister Mykhailo Koval said a total of nine servicemen had been killed so far in the army's "anti-terrorist" operation, which has been directed mainly against rebels in the towns of Slaviansk and Mariupol.

The dead included five air crew, Koval said. They died when their helicopters were downed by separatist fire.

Rebels have also suffered losses in the uprising, which began with the seizure of public buildings in eastern towns and cities. Many of the separatists hope to follow Crimea, which voted for union with Russia before its formal annexation in March.

The United States says Russia is backing the rebels while the Kremlin accuses Washington of having helped protesters to topple pro-Moscow Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich in February.


In the worst East-West crisis since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington and the European Union have slapped sanctions on a limited number of Russians and pro-Russian Ukrainians, and some small firms.

Washington has also said it would deny export licences for high-technology items that could help the Russian military.

Moscow retaliated on Tuesday, casting doubt on the long-term future of the International Space Station, a $100 billion, 15 nation project which was supposed to end the space race of the Cold War era.

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said Moscow would reject a US request to prolong the orbiting station's use beyond 2020. It would also bar Washington from using Russian-made rocket engines to launch military satellites.

Washington wants to keep the space station in use until at least 2024. But since the end of the US Space Shuttle programme, Russia's Soyuz spacecraft have been the only way to get there.


Investors have shifted large sums out of Russia since the crisis erupted, and US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said the Western sanctions were having an effect.

The standoff is straining business ties broadly. Around a dozen chief executives and chairmen of major US and European corporations have withdrawn from President Vladimir Putin's flagship economic conference between 22 and 24 May.

Germany's foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier expressed hope on a visit to Kiev that "round table" talks between politicians and civil groups this week would help to disarm the separatists and improve the atmosphere for presidential elections due later this month.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking in Berlin, said the more representative these talks are, the better. However, she added: "Clearly, people are only welcome if they can credibly show that they are prepared to reach their goals without violence."

Kiev's handling of the crisis in the east caused angry scenes in the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday when deputies of the formerly ruling Regions party and their communist allies attacked the government for sending in the army - a move they said had alienated Russian-speakers.

When communist faction leader Petro Symonenko took a similar line, acting president Oleksander Turchinov, who is also speaker, burst out: "Liars have no place in parliament. Sit down."