, KIEV, May 29- Pro Russian rebels shot down a Ukrainian helicopter Thursday, killing 12 soldiers including a general in one of the biggest setbacks in Kiev’s seven week campaign against insurgents in the separatist east.
The insurgent success dealt a heavy blow to president-elect Petro Poroshenko’s repeated promise to quickly stamp out a conflict that has threatened the very survival of the splintered ex Soviet state.
Separatists had earlier Thursday also confirmed they were holding four unarmed European monitors not far from where the helicopter was shot out of the sky with a sophisticated surface to air missile.
Fresh fighting was reported Thursday across large swathes of eastern Ukraine’s rust belt as the violence that has already claimed more than 200 lives continued unabated.
Western backed Poroshenko — winner of 54.7 percent of Sunday’s presidential vote — must avert another showdown with Russia that could see Ukraine cut off from gas supplies by the start of next week.
But all attention Thursday was on Slavyansk — an industrial city of 120,000 mostly ethnic Russians that was the first of a dozen towns and cities seized by the rebels in response to the February ouster in Kiev of a pro-Kremlin president.
“I just received information that near Slavyansk, the terrorists — using a Russian man-portable air defence system — shot down our helicopter,” acting President Oleksandr Turchynov told a session of parliament.
Turchynov initially said that 13 soldiers and army General Volodymyr Kulchytskiy had died. But security officials and parliament sources later revised down the total death toll to 12.
A separatist spokesman had earlier told Russian news agencies that the helicopter was downed in a fierce battle that was still raging on the southern outskirts of Slavyansk.
The unnamed spokesman said that “several houses” belonging to civilians were on fire as a result of what he said was military activity.
Thursday’s death toll is the highest since Ukraine lost 18 soldiers during hours of heavy fighting in the same Donetsk region on May 22.
Poroshenko — a 48 year old confectionery tycoon who once enjoyed good relations with top Russian officials — reached out to Vladimir Putin on Wednesday by announcing that he intended to speak to the Kremlin chief when they both attend D-Day commemorations in Normandy on June 6.
The talks would be the first between the leaders of the two countries since a popular uprising chased a Kremlin-backed regime from power in February and installed a new administration intent on breaking Russia’s historic hold on Ukraine.
– ‘Acts of sabotage’ –
The self-proclaimed “people’s mayor” of Slavyansk earlier said that the four civilian monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) the rebels detained at a roadblock Monday were “all fine” and about to be set free.
“No one arrested them. We detained them. Now we will work out who they are, where they were going and why, and we will let them go,” Vyacheslav Ponomaryov told Russia’s Interfax news agency.