KIEV — Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko has held talks over a possible ceasefire in Ukraine, as two members of a Russian television crew were killed in the separatist east.
Poroshenko on Tuesday assured Putin that an investigation would be launched into the deaths, and vowed to take necessary measures to protect reporters covering the conflict, the Kremlin said in a statement following the talks.
"The issue of a possible ceasefire in the area of a military operation in Ukraine's southeast has been touched upon," the Kremlin said.
Moscow had earlier responded furiously to the death of the TV crew members, accusing Kiev of a campaign of "terror" and demanding an investigation.
Kiev in turn blamed the explosion of a vital pipeline used to transport Siberian gas to Europe – which erupted in a spectacular fireball on Tuesday – on Russian "sabotage." Tensions between the neighbours hit new highs this week when Russia cut gas supplies to Ukraine in a pricing row.
The move was a further blow to Kiev, which is battling a teetering economy and a 10-week uprising by pro-Russian separatists in the east.
The United Nations Security Council in a statement called for a probe into the deaths of the Russian TV crew, expressing concern about "reported cases of detention and harassment of journalists covering the crisis in Ukraine."
Igor Kornelyuk, a reporter with Russia's VGTRK media group, sustained severe stomach wounds when he was hit by shrapnel after being caught in an attack by Ukrainian forces in the Russian border region.
"He was unconscious when he arrived and died on his way to the operating room," Fedir Solyanyk, chief doctor at the main hospital in the rebel stronghold city of Lugansk said by telephone.
VGTRK sound technician Anton Voloshin died in the same attack.
Russia's Investigative Committee said it had opened a probe into the deaths and the foreign ministry demanded that Ukraine follow suit, accusing the Kiev authorities in a statement of "unleashing veritable terror against journalists from Russia."
Reporters Without Borders said the violence affecting journalists in Ukraine had reached "unprecedented levels" and called for a "full and impartial investigation" into the deaths.
Italian photographer Andrea Rocchelli and his Russian assistant Andrei Mironov were killed outside Slavyansk in the neighbouring Donetsk region in late May.
Russian gas cut
The Kremlin, which denies fomenting the unrest in the east, on Monday cut off gas supplies in a move Kiev called "another stage of Russia's aggression against the Ukrainian state."
Russia imposed the cut after Ukraine balked at making a US$1.9 billion (1.4 billion euro) debt payment in protest at Moscow's decision to nearly double Kiev's rates in the wake of the February ouster of a Kremlin-backed president.
Weeks of acrimonious debt and price negotiations broke up on Monday, with Russia walking away from a compromise solution proposed in Kiev by the European Union's energy commissioner.
Ukraine receives half its gas from Russia and transports 15 per cent of the fuel consumed in Europe – a dependence that has not diminished despite similar supply disruptions in 2006 and 2009. A gas shortage is not expected to be felt in either Ukraine or Europe for several months.
Ukraine has bolstered its underground storage volumes and analysts believe that Europe's own reserves are nearly full.
Yet Kiev is seeking to devise a longer-term solution that would eliminate a need to maintain an alliance with Russia to secure gas prices it can afford.
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said on Tuesday that a team headed by Naftogaz state energy firm chief Andriy Kobolev and Energy Minister Yuriy Prodan was flying to Budapest to negotiate "reverse-flow" deliveries along pipelines now used for transporting Russian gas westward.
European utilities have for the most part refused to compromise their relations with Russia's energy giant Gazprom by selling its own gas back to Ukraine at a price lower than that imposed on Kiev by Moscow.
European companies "do not have the right to do that," Gazprom chief executive Alexei Miller said.
But EU Energy Commission spokeswoman Sabine Berger said such "reverse-flow" deliveries were "legally perfectly sound."
The gas cut has further exacerbated tensions with Kiev after Moscow's March seizure of Crimea and move to mass troops on its border with Ukraine.
On Tuesday, acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov – an outspoken official who has made a recent series of unsubstantiated claims – called the explosion at the Trans-Siberian Pipeline Russian "sabotage".
"We are considering several versions of events, including the main one – an act of terrorism," Avakov said in a statement.
"The pipeline's sabotage... is an another attempt by Russia to discredit Ukraine as a partner in the gas sector." — AFP