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Dozens killed as Ukraine claims to have captured Donetsk airport

KIEV/DONETSK, Ukraine -- Ukraine said Tuesday it had regained control of the airport in the eastern city of Donetsk after a day of punishing air strikes and fierce fighting with pro-Moscow separatist gunmen left dozens of people dead.

Russian President Vladimir Putin immediately called on Ukraine to end its “punitive” operation in the rebel-held east and for talks between Kiev and the insurgents.

The battle for the main transport hub in Ukraine's industrial heartland erupted on Monday just hours after president-elect Petro Poroshenko vowed to take a tough stand against the “terrorists.”

“The airport is under our full control. The enemy suffered heavy losses. We have none,” Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said in a statement.

He said however that the military was continuing its operation at the airport and AFP journalists reported hearing sporadic gunfire and explosions during the morning.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe also reported being unable to establish contact with a four-member observer team based in the restive city since Monday evening.

Makeshift Blockades

Donetsk mayor Oleksandr Lukyanchenko told reporters that two civilians and 38 combatants had died. Rebel leaders suggested that the toll among their ranks could be higher.

An AFP correspondent reported seeing body parts and blood splattered near a bullet-riddled truck on the airport road, where makeshift blockades had been set up with dumper trucks and piles of tires.

Combat jets and helicopter gunships struck the airport terminal Monday after it was seized by scores of gunmen just a day after Ukraine's presidential election won by Poroshenko.

The strikes represented the most forceful action by Kiev yet in its battle to crush a bloody rebellion that has raged in the coal and steel belt since early April and threatened to tear the former Soviet state apart.

The military action has also revived tensions between Kiev and Moscow, which had initially said it was ready to work with the new leader of its western neighbor.

In his first comments on Ukraine since Sunday's election, Putin called “for an immediate end to the military's punitive operation in southeastern regions and the establishment of peaceful dialogue between Kiev and regional representatives,” the Kremlin said in a statement issued following a phone conversation with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

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A woman reacts after seeing the lifeless body of a man killed by shrapnel following a shelling by Ukrainian government forces in Slovyansk, Ukraine, on Monday, May 26. (AP)

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