UKRAINIAN government forces have taken a rebel stronghold from pro-Russian separatists in a major victory for its new, pro-European Union president.
Petro Poroshenko said troops took Slovyansk, a city of about 100,000 that has been a centre of the fighting between Kiev’s forces and pro-Russian insurgents, after a night battle.
It was a rare and significant success for Kiev’s forces.
Poroshenko commanded them to raise the Ukrainian flag over Slovyansk, which has been under the control of rebels since early April.
Andrei Purgin of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic told reporters rebels were withdrawing, but claimed the army’s campaign had left the city “in ruins”.
However, Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for Ukraine’s national security and defence council, said mopping-up operations were continuing. “Slovyansk is under siege. Now an operation is going on to neutralise small groups hiding in buildings where peaceful citizens are living,” he said.
Alexei, a Slovyansk resident who would not give his last name, said he heard bombing throughout the night. When it stopped in the early morning, he left his house and saw that all the rebel checkpoints had been abandoned. He said there was some damage to buildings in the city centre, but said much of the rest of the city had been left untouched.
A rebel commander who would only give his nom de guerre – Pinochet – said rebels had pulled out to the nearby town of Kramatorsk.
But outside Kramatorsk, reporters saw an abandoned checkpoint and several hundred rebels, armed and in uniform, driving in minibuses in the direction of Donetsk.
The capture of Slovyansk would be a major victory for the Ukraine army, which has often appeared weak in the months-long campaign against the rebels. On Thursday, Poroshenko shook up his defence team, appointing the third defence minister since the downfall of the former president, Viktor Yanukovych, in February.
Some rebels played down the significance of the miltary advance. Pavel Gubarev, the self-styled governor of the Donetsk People’s Republic, wrote online that the rebels had staged a tactical retreat.
“Kutuzov also retreated, as that was the plan,” he wrote, referring to the 19th century Russian general credited with defeating Napoleon’s forces. “In general, Russians only retreat before a decisively victorious battle.”
Others in the rebels’ ranks pleaded publicly with Russia to assist them. In a video posted online late on Friday, Igor Girkin, the “commander in chief of the Donetsk People’s Republic”, said his men had “lost the will to fight”.
“They want to live in Russia,” said Girkin. “But when they tried to assert this right, Russia doesn’t want to help.” He said he believed the troops had only “two or three weeks” before they were defeated if Russia did not step in.
Rebel leaders have pleaded with the Kremlin for military assistance, while some prominent Russian nationalists have taunted president Vladimir Putin, accusing him of cowardice. Such criticism could resonate with the broader Russian public, which has been heavily influenced by Russian state television’s characterisation of the Kiev government as a “fascist junta” that is killing Russian-speakers.
Poroshenko said on Friday he was ready to conduct another round of talks between representatives from Ukraine, Russia and the rebels.