Ukraine claims big victory over separatists
Pro-Russian forces abandon city but claim withdrawal is strategic
Ukraine claimed a major victory over pro-Russian separatists yesterday as the top rebel military commander and a large number of his troops abandoned their most important stronghold in the Donetsk region.
Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian president, used Twitter to show that troops had raised the Ukrainian flag over Slavyansk, which had been held by the rebels for nearly three months, yesterday morning.
“I have instructed the chief of the general staff to raise the national flag over Slavyansk,” Mr Poroshenko said. He said the separatists had lost one tank and four armoured vehicles in the breakout.
There was confusion about the exact nature of the fight, however, with the Ukrainian security council also reporting that fighting continued in the city.
Rebel leaders later admitted Igor Strelkov, the rebel military commander, took the decision to abandon the town as part of a strategic withdrawal, and said they would redeploy and consolidate their forces in Donetsk and the town of Horlivka.
“This way we win time while the Ukrainians redeploy their personnel and artillery,” said Pavel Gubarev, the “people’s Governor” of Donetsk and a key figure in the Donetsk People’s Republic.
“This time can be used effectively to join forces, unify the militia under a single command, improve communications and strengthen our forces.”
Arsen Avakov, the Ukrainian interior minister, said he had received intelligence that Mr Strelkov, whose real name is Igor Girkin and who has been directing the defence of the city for months, had fled along with “a significant part” of his troops.
The claim could not be independently confirmed. A separatist website later posted a message saying Mr Strelkov remained in command of the rebel army and that he planned to consolidate his forces “in the nearest future,” but madeno mention of his whereabouts.
In a disarmingly frankinterview with Russian media last Friday, a visibly shaken Mr Strelkov admitted the fall of the town was inevitable.
“If Russia does not negotiate a ceasefire or intervene with its armed forces for us, for the Russian people who live here, we will be destroyed,” he said in an emotional interview with pro-Kremlin tabloid Life News. “It will happen in a week, two at most.”
He all but accused the Kremlin of abandoning the rebels.“[The fighters] are people who consciously took up arms to defend their language and their culture, to defend Russia,” he said.
“[But] Russia does not want to help them unify with their people. It is very difficult to accept that in nearly three months in Slavyansk practically no real help has reached us,” he added, drawing a distinction between assistance via “private channels” and the intervention by the Russian state that “we really need”.
The assault on Slavyansk, part of a major Ukrainian offensive on rebel positions across the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, comes as foreign ministers from Russia and Europe made a further push for a ceasefire.
A contact group led by the former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma was due to convene talks with rebel leaders in Donetsk yesterday in an attempt to push forward a peace plan agreed by Moscow and Kiev on Wednesday.