DONETSK: Resurgent government forces on Saturday hoisted the Ukrainian flag over pro-Russian rebels’ main stronghold after a devastating shelling onslaught that levelled much of the city but delivered Kiev its biggest success of the campaign.
The self-proclaimed mayor of Slavyansk confirmed to AFP that insurgents had abandoned the rustbelt city of 120,000. A local resident said by phone that barricades once manned by the camouflage-clad gunmen stood abandoned since the early morning. Ukraine’s ability to win back Slavyansk — home to one of the country’s biggest weapons storage facilities that fell to the insurgents on April 6 — marks a key turning point in three months of low-scale warfare that has threatened the very survival of the ex-Soviet state.
Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said in a Facebook post that the withdrawal was led by senior militia commander Igor Strelkov — alleged by Kiev to be a colonel in Russia’s GRU military intelligence unit.
Both Strelkov and Moscow deny any GRU link despite Western claims that the Kremlin is covertly funding and arming the uprising to destabilise Kiev’s new pro-European leaders and retain control over Russian-speaking eastern regions of Ukraine.
Ukrainian Defence Minister Valeriy Geletey told President Petro Poroshenko that his forces had raised the national flag over city hall “in accordance with your order to liberate Slavyansk”.
Poroshenko stormed to victory in a May 25 election thanks to his vow to quickly resolve the country’s worst crisis since independence in 1991.
Most analysts think that the 48-year-old chocolate baron desperately needed an early success in the campaign to secure the trust of Ukrainians frustrated by their underfunded army’s inability to stand up to what they see as Russian aggression.
“The departure of the fighters was a surprise. Nobody was aware it was happening,” city resident Kolya Cherep told AFP by telephone. “This morning, I saw that there were no fighters in front of the town hall. Then I saw that there were none manning the barricades in town,” he said.
Strelkov himself had told the pro-Kremlin LifeNews channel on Friday that his units “will be destroyed... within a week, two weeks at the latest” unless Russia helped secure an immediate truce or moved in its troops.
The militia commander tweeted on Saturday that President Vladimir Putin’s repeated vow to use “all “available means” to protect his compatriots in Ukraine — a neighbour he referred to as “New Russia” — now looked like an empty promise.
“They filled us with hope and abandoned us. Those were fine words by Putin about protecting the Russian people, defending New Russia. But only words,” Strelkov wrote. Slavyansk is the symbolic heart of an uprising sparked by the February ouster of a pro-Kremlin administration in Kiev and fuelled by Russia’s subsequent seizure of Crimea. Relentless artillery and sniper fire across a dozen blue-collar cities and towns have since claimed more than 470 lives and left Western leaders frustrated by repeated mediation failures.
Clashes in the economically-vital border regions of Lugansk and Donetsk picked up with renewed vigour when Poroshenko tore up a 10-day ceasefire agreement earlier this week.
His decision was immediately followed by the launch of a “massive” offensive by Kiev that prompted Germany and France to spearhead a new push for an immediate and lasting ceasefire.
US President Barack Obama has also urged Putin to commitment himself to a solution in Ukraine that could stave off punishing American sanctions against Russia’s banking and arms exports sectors. And uneasy EU leaders are hoping that a firm promise by the Putin not to meddle in Ukraine can take pressure off the 28-nation bloc to adopt punitive steps that could damage their own strong energy and financial ties with Russia.
But Poroshenko’s call for European-mediated truce talks on Saturday was left unanswered by Moscow and the separatist command.
“The date, place and format are being discussed, but there have been no major changes yet in the progress of preparations for consultations,” a source Moscow told Russia’s Interfax news agency.
The 43-year-old Strelkov remains one of the uprising’s most mysterious but also powerful figures who effectively headed the new Kiev leadership’s most-wanted list. He holds the title of “defence minister” of the Donetsk People’s Republic and is also the chief of the Slavyansk militia.
Strelkov was linked to the April capture and detention of seven OSCE monitors in Slavyansk who were eventually released after an eight-day ordeal following intervention from Moscow.
Kiev has published what it says are intercepted conversations between him and Putin’s special envoy Vladimir Lukin talking about the OSCE monitors.
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