Resurgent government forces hoisted the Ukrainian flag over pro-Russian rebels’ main stronghold Slavyansk after a shelling onslaught levelled much of the city but delivered Kiev the biggest success of its campaign.
The self-proclaimed mayor of Slavyansk confirmed to AFP Saturday 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.
Images posted on YouTube showed helmeted troops carrying dozens of grenade launchers out of the barricaded Slavyansk city hall building as the blue-and-yellow national banner streamed under a blazing blue sky.
Kiev’s ability to win back Slavyansk — home to one of the country’s biggest weapons storage facilities that fell to the insurgents in early April — marks a key turning point in three months of low-scale warfare that has threatened the very survival of the ex-Soviet state.
Rebel fighters apparently withdrew to nearby Kramatorsk, but did not stop there. Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said late Saturday “the military operation to liberate Slavyansk and Kramatorsk is over”, also ordering all administrations to resume normal business.
Rebels also withdrew to Gorlivka, a city of 260,000, about 50 kilometres (30 miles) southeast of Slavyansk, according to Interior Minister Arsen Avakov.
A large number of them were seen arriving from the north in half a dozen lorries and dozens of cars in the industrial city of Donetsk in the afternoon.
The armed passengers of about 20 vehicles then entered a scientific institute, with five armoured vehicles and several military trucks later passing by the city’s main hotel.
The self-styled deputy prime minister of the separatist Donetsk Republic, Andrei Purgin, said about 150 wounded rebels from Slavyansk would be treated at Donetsk hospitals, Interfax-Ukraine agency said.
– ‘No time for fireworks’ –
Pro-Russian authorities called a rally Sunday in the city’s Lenin square in support of the rebels, even as one of their main leaders, Denis Pushilin, said on his Twitter account that the withdrawal was “tactical”.
“We will win,” he insisted.
Interior minister Avakov said 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-EU leaders and retain control over Russian-speaking eastern regions of Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Petro 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 the 48-year-old chocolate baron desperately needed an early battlefield victory to secure the trust of Ukrainians frustrated by their underfunded army’s inability to stand up to what they see as Russian aggression.
Poroshenko immediately vowed to press on with his offensive and flush out “terrorists who are entrenching themselves in large cities”.
“This is not a full victory and no time for fireworks,” the Western-backed leader said in a statement.
“I am nowhere near euphoric. The situation is very difficult,” he cautioned. “A lot of challenges lie ahead.”
– ‘Putin abandoned us’ –
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 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 commit 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 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 in Moscow told Russia’s Interfax news agency.