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Ukraine crisis: Putin calls for Ukrainian government to stop crackdown on rebels

At least 30 pro-Russian insurgents died in Donetsk yesterday

Vladimir Putin has called for the Ukrainian army to immediately end its operation against pro-Russian rebels after dozens were killed in bloody clashes.

In his first public comments on Ukraine since Sunday's presidential election, the Russian President also stepped up pressure on Kiev to start a dialogue with rebel leaders as fighting continued.

The Kremlin said Mr Putin had spoken to the Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, by telephone and “underscored the need for an immediate halt to the punitive military operation in the southeastern regions and the establishment of peaceful dialogue between Kiev and representatives of the regions".

Russia said it started to withdraw troops stationed along its border with Ukraine since the start of the crisis but Nato said many remain.

Sergei Lavrov, Russia's Foreign Minister, reiterated calls for an immediate end to violence, according to Russian news agencies.

He said halting bloodshed in Ukraine's southeast was the most important task for the authorities in Kiev and the new President and warned that efforts to put down the separatists could backfire.

At least 30 rebels were killed in heavy fighting with the Ukrainian army in Donetsk on Monday and the Ukrainian military has taken back control of the besieged airport.

Oleksandr Lukyanchenko, the Mayor of Donetsk, claimed 48 people, including two civilians, were killed on the day, while rebel leaders said the death toll could reach 100.

Government forces used fighter jets and helicopter gunships against the pro-Russian rebels who had taken over the city’s international airport on Monday.

The newly-elected President, Petro Poroshenko, had vowed to crush the rebellion in the east of the country “in a matter of hours”.

One insurgent, who did not give his name, said outside the hospital in Donetsk that 30 bodies of his fellow insurgents were taken there.

The lorry carrying the bodies was still parked outside the hospital, waiting for explosives experts to check for any unexploded weapons, he said.

Sustained artillery and gunfire was heard from the airport in Donetsk on Monday and dense black smoke could be seen in the air.

Many flights were delayed or cancelled and access to the airport was blocked by police.

Pro-Russia gunmen taking up positions near Donetsk airport.

The air strikes against the separatists in control of Donetsk airport appeared to be the most visible Government military operation yet since it started a crackdown on insurgents last month.

Two civilians, including an elderly woman, were reportedly killed by stray bullets during the fighting at nearby Donetsk railway station.

The chaos continued on Tuesday and posters went up in the streets telling people how to act if shooting broke out and where bomb shelters were located. Schools were closed and parents were warned to keep their children indoors.

On the road to Donetsk airport, Reuters journalists saw blood-spattered and bullet-riddled trucks of the kind the separatist fighters have been using.

A Kamaz truck lay wrecked on the airport road, covered in blood and completely riddled with bullet holes. Blood had spattered across the entire roadway and even reached a billboard seven metres above, they said.

Pro-Russian separatists reportedly first stormed the airport early on Sunday, ejecting the airport security staff and Ukrainian soldiers guarding the site.

It was the second time this month that they have occupied the international airport, whose vast new terminal was built for the 2012 European Football Championships.

Known as the “chocolate king”, confectionery billionaire Mr Poroshenko won Sunday's presidential vote.

He has vowed to negotiate a peaceful end to the crisis but dubbed pro-Russian rebels “terrorists” and compared them to Somali pirates.

Russia has supported the decentralisation of Ukraine’s government to give the regions more autonomy and wants troops to be withdrawn from eastern and southern parts of the country that have seen unrest.

Additional reporting by Associated Press and Reuters