Ukraine plans to lay siege to two vital rebel strongholds in the east of the country in an attempt to force separatist fighters to put down their weapons.
The cities of Donetsk and Luhansk have been earmarked for siege as Ukraine’s armed forces continue an offensive that has put pro-Russian rebels on the defensive in a battle that has gripped eastern areas of Ukraine since April.
Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president, said: “My order is in effect: to tighten the ring around the terrorists.”
The president’s order comes as the Ukrainian army tries to capitalise on recent success, with the government yesterday claiming to have retaken two rebel-controlled towns. Over the weekend, soldiers raised the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag over the town of Slovyansk, once a separatist bastion.
Now, hoping to press home their advantage, they have turned to the far bigger prizes of Donetsk and Luhansk.
In a television interview, Mykhaylo Koval, a senior Ukrainian security official, said: “There is a clear strategic plan, which has been approved. The plan is focused on two major regional centres: Luhansk and Donetsk. These cities will be completely blockaded.
“These measures will result in the separatists – let us call them bandits – being forced to lay down arms.”
Both cities have been hotbeds of rebel activity since the start of the insurrection, with separatists declaring them and their surrounding regions independent of Kiev’s control. Following their recent defeats, hundreds of rebels have reportedly moved into the cities in order to make what could be a last stand.
Igor Strelkov, one of the rebel commanders, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying his men would fight for Donetsk, which was “much easier to defend than little Slovyansk”.
“We will continue the combat operations and will try not to make the same mistakes that we made in the past,” he vowed.
Yesterday, rebel forces demolished three bridges on the approaches to Donetsk in an effort to slow the advancing government forces.
Hundreds of demonstrators also took to the streets in Donetsk in a show of support for the rebels – but how deep this support goes has been harder to gauge. Earlier in the year, pro-separatist demonstrations struggled to get more than a few thousand people attending despite the city boasting a million-strong population.
A sizable chunk of the city also wishes to remain part of Ukraine, therefore any siege would have to be carefully orchestrated by the Ukrainian forces so not to inflict unnecessary damage and alienate its supporters.
Rinat Akhmetov, one of Ukraine’s wealthiest and most influential men, pleaded with the government not to use the air force against the city and the surrounding region.
“Donetsk must not be bombed. Donbass [the surrounding region] must not be bombed. Cities, towns and infrastructure must not be destroyed,” he told Ukrainian television. “We must avoid suffering and deaths of peaceful people.”
As both sides ready for what could be a bloody and protracted battle, reports have emerged from the country detailing the death and maiming of civilians caught up in the strife.
Reporting from villages on the front line, Tanya Lokshina, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, found houses destroyed and locals killed in air raids and artillery attacks. In one village, she was told of a five-year-old boy who died from loss of blood after both his legs were blown off – a day after he and his family celebrated his birthday.
Russia, which stands accused of fomenting the chaos in eastern Ukraine, has demanded the European Union put pressure on Kiev to rein in an offensive it claims “has resulted in the death of peaceful people”.