Kiev: A Russian state television reporter was killed on Tuesday during a fierce battle in Ukraine`s separatist east that put Kiev`s tattered relations with Moscow under further strain.
The chief doctor at the main hospital in the rebel stronghold city of Lugansk said Russia`s VGTRK media group reporter Igor Kornelyuk sustained severe stomach wounds after being hit by shrapnel.
"He was unconscious when he arrived and died on his way to the operating room," doctor Fedir Solyanyk told AFP by telephone.
A Lugansk separatist spokesman told AFP by telephone that Kornelyuk and VGTRK sound technician Anton Voloshin were caught in the middle of a grenade launcher attack staged by Ukranian forces in the Russian border region.
The separatist spokesman said the fate of Voloshin and that of about 15 rebel fighters who were with the Russian television crew at the time remained unclear.
Ukrainian security officials said they would comment only after conducting a full investigation.
But Russia`s foreign ministry immediately denounced the reporter`s death as a "crime" committed by Ukrainian forces that it expected global media to condemn.
Kornelyuk`s death is the second confirmed fatality of a reporter in eastern Ukraine since fighting there broke out in mid-April.
Italian photographer Andrea Rocchelli and his Russian assistant Andrei Mironov were killed outside Slavyansk in the neighbouring Donetsk region in late May.
The 10-week pro-Russian uprising has threatened the survival of the economically teetering ex-Soviet nation and put East-West relations under pressure not witnessed since the Cold War.The Kremlin has denied fomenting the unrest. But its March seizure of Crimea and border troop movements were followed on Monday by a gas cut that Kiev called "another stage of Russia`s aggression against the Ukrainian state".
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 percent of the fuel consumed in Europe a dependence that has not diminished despite similar supply disruptions in 2006 and 2009.
Russia imposed the cut after Ukraine balked at making a $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.
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 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 told Russia`s RIA Novosti news agency on Monday.
But EU Energy Commission spokeswoman Sabine Berger said such "reverse-flow" deliveries were "legally perfectly sound".Kiev`s increasingly hostile view of Moscow was in full display on Tuesday when a vital pipeline used to transport Siberian gas to Europe exploded in a spectacular fireball that sent up a 30-metre (100-foot) flame.
The Trans-Siberian Pipeline blast -- the second in slightly more than a month -- appeared to have been caused by the loss of pressure in a seal in a section of the link running through a northeastern part of Ukraine that has not been affected by the fighting.
But acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov -- an outspoken official who has made a recent series of unsubstantiated claims -- blamed the explosion on 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."