Ukraine forces claim upper hand over pro-Russia rebels
UKRAINE'S government claimed to be gaining the upper hand over separatist rebels yesterday declaring that security forces had "cleared" large swathes of the east of the country.
The upbeat assessment from Kiev coincided with signs that Russia had abandoned the threat of a conventional invasion of eastern Ukraine, with Nato confirming that about two-thirds of the forces massed near the border have been withdrawn.
Mykahailo Koval, the acting Ukrainian defence minister, said in Kiev that morale remained high, despite the deaths of 12 servicemen, including a general, when separatists shot down a helicopter on Thursday.
"Our armed forces have completed their assigned missions and completely cleared the southern and western parts of the Donetsk region and the northern part of the Luhansk region of separatists," said Mr Koval.
But the true extent of the gains made by the government remains unclear.
Pro-Russian rebels retain control over their strongholds in the town of Slavyansk and the regional capital of Donetsk.
Fighting has intensified around Slavyansk, where rebels used a shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missile to bring down the MI-8 transport helicopter carrying General Serhiy Kulchytskiy, the head of combat and special training for Ukraine's national guard, and 11 others.
But the US and NATO both confirmed that most of the 40,000 Russian troops previously massed near Ukraine's eastern frontier had been withdrawn, in accordance with a promise from President Vladimir Putin last week.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Nato secretary-general, said "around two thirds of Russian troops have been or are being pulled back". Chuck Hagel, the US defence secretary, said that all but about seven battalions had moved away from the border
A Russian battalion consists of about 500 soldiers, meaning that the remaining force would be fewer than 4,000. But there is mounting evidence that Russian irregular volunteers are filtering across the frontier to boost rebel ranks.
The bodies of 33 Russian citizens killed in the battle for Donetsk international airport on Monday were repatriated on Thursday night, and the insurgents' leaders have abandoned the claim that all their fighters are local men.
Denis Pushilin, chairman of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic government, said: "It's simply that there were no volunteers [from Russia] before, and now they have begun to arrive – and not only from Russia."
The emergence of foreign fighters appears to be part of an increasing Russianisation of the rebel movement.
Alexander Borodai, the "prime minister" of the "Donetsk People's Republic", is from Moscow and he is accompanied by aides who admit being Muscovites.
One of the most visible elements of this trend is the Vostok battalion, a well-armed and relatively professional outfit that briefly seized control of the rebel headquarters in Donetsk on Thursday, apparently to purge elements deemed disloyal or "criminal" by Mr Borodai and Mr Pushilin.
The battalion, which members told this reporter was raised some time before May 2, includes volunteers from Donetsk and other regions of Ukraine.
However they said that it also includes somemen from across the border in Russia.
Several fighters who took part in seizing the headquarters building earlier this week were from South Ossetia, the breakaway region of Georgia over which Russia fought a five-day war in 2008. Meanwhile, a second group of four observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) disappeared in eastern Ukraine yesterday, the organisation said. (© Daily Telegraph, London)