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Kiev (AFP) – Separatist rebels killed seven Ukrainian soldiers in a bloody ambush in the restive east on Tuesday, rattling efforts by Europe to step up a diplomatic push to resolve the escalating crisis on its doorstep.

The violence flared as German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was in Ukraine to push Kiev and pro-Moscow rebels to come together at the negotiating table after the East-West security body OSCE drew up a road map aimed at easing tensions.

But the battle lines remained drawn, with fears that Ukraine could be threatened with collapse following weekend independence referendums in the eastern industrial provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk that have been rejected by Kiev and the West.

Russia, despite expressing support for the “extremely important” road map, said Kiev must halt its military operation in the east if rebels are to comply with the peace initiative.

And it accused Ukraine’s pro-West authorities of refusing “real dialogue” with the separatists.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which began life as a forum for East-West dialogue in the Cold War, said the initiative focuses on “restraint from violence, disarmament, national dialogue, and elections.”

Kiev is hosting a round table meeting on Wednesday involving the government, parliament and regional leaders — but notably not any separatist representatives.

On the ground, the Ukrainian military suffered one of its bloodiest single days since the separatist insurrection in the east erupted.

Kiev said seven soldiers were killed in an ambush by rebels armed with heavy weapons between the insurgent strongholds of Slavyansk and nearby Kramatorsk, bringing to 16 the number killed since mid-April.

Also Tuesday, rebels in Lugansk claimed their self-styled governor Valery Bolotov survived an “assassination attempt” on Tuesday after assailants opened fire on his car with automatic rifles.

Violence has raged for weeks in eastern Ukraine as government troops carry out what it describes as “anti-terrorist” operations against well-armed rebels who seized cities and towns in the chaos that followed the ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych in February.

Interim President Oleksandr Turchynov insisted Tuesday that the offensive would continue despite the Kremlin’s demands.

There had been fears that Putin would move quickly to annex the territories of Lugansk and Donetsk as he did with Crimea in March, despite Western outrage.

And while urging rebels to sign up to the OSCE roadmap, Moscow has also kept up the pressure on Kiev, insisting that negotiations on regional rights must take place before the country’s planned presidential vote on May 25.

The crisis has plunged the West’s relations with Russia to their lowest point since the Cold War and raised European concerns about the vital supply of Russian gas, much of which flows through Ukraine.

And with the rhetoric still running high, Ukraine’s interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk accused Russia of stealing the country’s gas.

Yatsenyuk, in Brussels to seek EU support for his beleaguered government, threatened to take Russia to the international arbitration court if it rejected proposals to settle their dispute over gas contracts and prices.

Russia has threatened to cut supplies from June 3 if Ukraine does not settle a $1.66 billion bill.

Steinmeier, who traveled to both Kiev and Odessa, said the situation in Ukraine remained “very threatening” but called for “a national dialogue.”

“I hope this will create the conditions to take a step to bring back occupied territory, disarm armed groups step-by-step and re-install the authority of the state,” he said.

He also said the presidential election — called by Kiev’s new leaders after they took power in February — will “play a crucial role” in bringing the country out of crisis.

Wednesday’s round table discussions, to be moderated by veteran German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger, “are of course only a start,” Steinmeier conceded.

Poland also sounded alarm bells, warning that its neighbor risked becoming a failed or divided state unless the EU effectively supports the May 25 vote.

In Moscow, the foreign ministry said it “expects” Ukraine rebels to comply with the OSCE road map, as long as Kiev does — and called on Ukraine’s leaders to agree to talks in the near future.

The Russian ministry also said Kiev had to immediately stop “reprisal raids” in the east — using a term that refers to a Nazi massacre in 1943 — and pull back troops from the encircled cities and towns.

The increasingly urgent diplomatic flurry comes after eastern rebels Monday appealed to join Russia following what they claimed were resounding victories in independence referendums.

Both European and U.S. officials denounced the votes as illegal, with Brussels slapping a new round of sanctions on Russians and Crimeans involved in the crisis.

And Donetsk governor Serhiy Taruta said Tuesday the referendums were nothing more than a “social survey.”

“As for the Donetsk People’s Republic, such a republic does not exist legally or politically,” he said. “There is only a dreamed-up name and nothing else.”

Moscow however said it “respects” the votes and called for talks with rebels in the industrial regions, home to seven million of Ukraine’s 46 million people.

Rebel officials in Donetsk said 89 percent of voters there backed breaking away from Ukraine in Sunday’s referendum, while separatists in Lugansk said 94 percent had supported independence.

AFP Photo/Alexander Khudoteply

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany was forced to defend President Donald Trump's recent attacks on MSNBC host Joe Scarborough on Tuesday, an unenviable task she nevertheless intentionally signed up for. She desperately tried to divert the attention back to Scarborough — without engaging in the president's conspiracy theorizing — but offered no credible defense of the president's conduct.

Trump has been spreading the debunked theory that Scarborough killed a staffer in 2001 while he was in Congress, even though it was determined she died of natural causes. The staffer's widower wrote a released a letter on Tuesday pleading with Twitter to take down the president's offensive tweets promoting the thoery. He said he was "angry," "frustrated," and "grieved" by the president's promotion of the harmful allegations. Trump is perverting his late wife's memory, he said, and he fears her niece and nephews will encounter these attacks.When asked about the letter, McEnany said she wasn't sure if the president had seen it. But she said their "hearts" are with the woman's family "at this time." It was a deeply ironic comment because the only particularly traumatizing thing about "this time" for the family is the president's attacks, which come nearly two decades after the woman's death.

McEnany refused to offer any explanation of Trump's comments and instead redirected reporters to a clip of Scarborough on Don Imus's radio show in 2003. In that show, Imus made a tasteless joke obliquely referring to the death, and Scarborough laughed at it briefly.

"Why is the president making these unfounded allegations?" asked ABC News' Jonathan Karl. "I mean, this is pretty nuts, isn't it? The president is accusing someone of possible murder. The family is pleading with the president to please stop unfounded conspiracy theories. Why is he doing it?""The president said this morning, this is not an original Trump thought. And it is not," she said, bringing up the Imus clip. But she made no mention of why the president is bringing up the issue 17 years later and with a much larger platform.

When pressed further on the president's conduct, she again diverted blame to Scarborough, saying his morning show unfairly criticizes the president. But again, she offered no substantive defense of Trump.

After McEnany had moved on, PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor brought it up again: "Why won't the president give this widower peace and stop tweeting about the conspiracy theory involving his wife?"

McEnany said she had already answered the question, which she hadn't, and said the onus is on Scarborough to explain the Imus clip."The widower is talking specifically about the president!" Alcindor shot back. But McEnany called on Chanel Rion, with the aggressively pro-Trump outlet OAN, who changed the subject to conspiracy theories about the origins of the Russia investigation.

"Are you not going to answer that?" Alcindor called out, still trying to get a substantive response to her question, but Rion spoke over her.

At the end of the briefing, another reporter asked whether Trump was looking for any actual law enforcement steps be taken in response to his conspiracy theory. But McEnany had nothing to add, and simply told people to listen to the Imus clip again. As she hurried out of the briefing room, a reporter asked if Trump would stop promoting the theory — but she left without answering.

Watch the exchange about Klausutis, which begins at 48:45.