KIEV: Ukraine’s government said it would quickly seize more territory from rebels after re-taking the separatist stronghold of Slaviansk in what President Petro Poroshenko called a turning point in the fight for control of the country’s east.
Government forces routed pro-Russian rebels in the flashpoint city on Saturday and raised the blue and yellow national flag over what had for months been a separatist redoubt. On Sunday, Ukrainian forces shelled parts of the rebel-held town of Luhansk near the Russian border, hitting a battery-making factory and other buildings, Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency reported, quoting rebels in the town.
It said some people were wounded but there was no further word on casualties. “People are hurriedly fleeing to bomb-shelters or are leaving the area that is being shelled,” it said.
“My order is now in effect - tighten the ring around the terrorists,” Poroshenko tweeted on Sunday. “Continue the operation to liberate Donetsk and Luhansk regions,” he said, naming Ukraine’s two major eastern parts which have boiled with separatist rebellion since April. In a statement, Poroshenko’s interior minister, Arsen Avakov said: “We have a plan of action... We will move forward every day”.
There were no immediate figures for casualties caused by the government offensive in Slaviansk, which comes after Poroshenko refused to renew a unilateral ceasefire and ordered the resumption of a government offensive on June 30.
Ukrainian forces said they now had full control of Slaviansk and the nearby town of Kramatorsk. Many rebels appeared to have retreated towards Donetsk, the east’s main industrial hub where separatists first declared a “people’s republic”.
Armed rebels were patrolling one of the main streets of Donetsk on Sunday, local news agency Novosti Donbass said.
Slaviansk has been the most important stronghold of the militants fighting government forces in mainly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, a focal point of tensions between the West and Russia.
The town’s re-capture represents Kiev’s most notable military victory in three months of fighting in which more than 200 Ukrainian troops have been killed as well as hundreds of civilians and rebels.
“This is not full victory. But the clearing out of people armed to the teeth from Slaviansk has huge symbolic importance. It is the beginning of the turning point in the battle with fighters for the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” said Poroshenko.
He said hostages held there by the separatists had been released and a significant number of weapons had been seized.
But he warned that the rebels were re-grouping in other big towns and he said he was far from euphoric. “There are further tests ahead,” he said. Andriy Lysenko, a senior official of Ukraine’s “anti-terrorist operation”, said: “The bands of terrorists are demoralised but they are all the same carrying out treacherous attacks on Ukrainian forces.”
In Slaviansk and neighbouring areas, he said, scores of rebels were surrendering. “Those who are giving themselves up are providing information about units of (rebel) fighters and where weapons are,” Lysenko said.
Moscow, which has already come under economic sanctions from the West, denies Western and Kiev’s accusations it has been backing the insurrection possibly with a view to dismembering the former Soviet republic.
The uprisings in eastern Ukraine erupted in April as rebels took over state buildings, built a powerful arsenal of seized weapons and declared their independence from Kiev, calling the pro-European government illegitimate.
The crisis began when street protests ousted Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovich in late February for rejecting a landmark political and trade deal with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia. Russia subsequently annexed Crimea and separatist revolts against the new Kiev authorities broke out with rebels declaring “people’s republics” and saying they wanted to join Russia.
Talks in Berlin last week involving the foreign ministers of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France had set Saturday as the day for talks between a contact group representing Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE security watchdog, and separatist leaders. The talks were to have been aimed at working out an effective ceasefire observed by the opposing sides, but against the background of the military action in Slaviansk there was no sign they had actually been held.
Poroshenko declared a week-long unilateral ceasefire on June 20 which he renewed for a further three days. But he refused last Monday to extend it any further, citing numerous violations by the rebels, and sent government forces onto an offensive against the rebels.
Russia has denied allegations by Kiev that it has been fanning the separatist rebellions by allowing weapons and fighters to cross over the long joint border to support the separatists. It has been pressing Poroshenko to engage in talks with the separatists and agree on a ceasefire.
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