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Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday urged Kiev to extend the shaky truce with insurgents in eastern Ukraine and launch talks despite them shooting down a helicopter with nine on board.
The Russian strongman said he had asked senators to rescind a resolution allowing him to invade Ukraine in order to encourage a "peace process" but vouched at the same time to always protect the interests of Russians in the neighbouring country.
"We will always protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine," Putin said after meeting Austrian counterpart Heinz Fischer in Vienna and inking a major pipeline deal. "I hope that armed forces will not be necessary for this."
Putin said the request to use the army in Ukraine was originally made due to the "situation in Crimea," the Black Sea peninsula Moscow annexed in March to a global outcry, and that he decided to recall it because he "wants to create conditions for the peace process."
In particular, he called on Kiev to extend the truce and begin negotiations with the east "about the future organisation of Ukraine" which would grant more rights to its separatist regions.
"It is not enough to announce a ceasefire, there should be the beginning of negotiations," he said.
"If we keep hearing, here is seven days ... and then this time is not used for a single attempt at reaching an agreement with eastern Ukraine, then all the efforts will be in vain, there will be no result."
The Russian leader made the unexpected appeal to the upper chamber of parliament earlier Tuesday, a move welcomed by Washington and Ukraine's Western-backed President Petro Poroshenko, who hailed it as "the first practical step taken by the Russian president" in support of his peace plan.
Putin said that forsaking his right to use military force in Ukraine would not mean that Russia stops paying attention to its interests abroad.
- Nine dead as helicopter downed -
Kiev said that nine servicemen were killed in the east when pro-Russian insurgents shot down an army helicopter. "Everyone on board died," Ukrainian defence spokesman Vladyslav Seleznyov wrote in a Facebook post.
The new violence has put the toll in the region to about 390 people since April, when Kiev launched its military operation to bring it under control.
Army officials said the Mi-8 helicopter was downed outside the rebel stronghold city of Slavyansk that has seen some of the heaviest fighting in the 11-week insurgency in Ukraine's Russified eastern rustbelt.
Putin said in Vienna that he has heard about the new violence in Slavyansk and called it "tragic" without directly placing blame for the new deaths.
AFP reporters near the city could also hear echoes of artillery fire about 90 minutes after the helicopter had been shot down.
Seleznyov said the rebels hit the chopper that was returning to its base with a missile from a portable air defence system -- a type of heavy weapon that Kiev has accused Russia of covertly supplying to the insurgents in the campaign to a furious reaction from the West.
The new violence came after a prominent head of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic Alexander Borodai unexpectedly reversed his firm rejection of President Poroshenko's earlier peace overtures by agreeing to a ceasefire that would last until Friday morning.
Also on Friday, Ukraine's president will sign a historic EU trade pact that crowns his May 25 election promise to make the decisive move westward -- one strongly resisted by Russia and that lies at the heart of the current unrest.
- New sanctions threat -
Putin's Austria visit Tuesday culminated with the signing of deal approving the EU country's section of the Moscow-backed South Stream pipeline, and came on the heels of new threats of sanctions by the West.
The project of Russian state energy giant Gazprom, which would bring annually 63 billion cubic metres of Siberian gas to the European Union bypassing Ukraine, has been marred by the conflict and some EU members have decided to suspend construction works.
Poroshenko has been lobbying world leaders to follow through with their threat to unleash devastating economic sanctions against Russia should Putin fail to immediately end his perceived military and diplomatic backing of the insurgents.
US President Barack Obama on Monday evening, threatened Putin in a telephone call with new sanctions if Moscow failed to stop the flow of weapons to Ukraine, as the two leaders spoke for the first time since the beginning of the month.