Ukrainian soldiers check a destroyed armoured vehicle at a
checkpoint in the outskirts of Slaviansk. REUTERS/Maxim
Ukrainian forces have routed pro-Russian rebels in a
flashpoint area of eastern Ukraine and raised the country's
blue and yellow flag again over what had for months been the
separatist redoubt of Slaviansk.
A Reuters reporter saw a convoy of about 20 military
transport vehicles and buses filled with armed rebels driving
out of Kramatorsk where they had gone after apparently
fleeing Slaviansk 20 km (12 miles) to the north.
About 100-150 Ukrainian troops patrolled the centre of
Slaviansk and some soldiers were bringing out weapons and
ammunition from one of the administration buildings the
rebels had been using as a headquarters.
Shooting could be heard from the outskirts of the town which
had served as a stronghold for rebel forces command, and one
Ukrainian soldier said the city was not yet fully under
Newly-appointed Defence Minister Valery Heletey appeared
confident in reporting to Ukrainian President Petro
"Your order to free Slaviansk from the (separatist) fighters
has been carried out," he was quoted as saying on the
The rebellion in largely Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine has
been a source of great tensions between the West and Russia.
Moscow, which has already come under economic sanctions,
denies Western accusations it has been backing the
insurrection possibly with a view to dismembering the former
Heletey said the Ukrainian flag had been hoisted over the
main administrative building in Slaviansk, replacing the
Russian white-blue-red tricolor separatists had hoisted in
early April when they seized key buildings in the city of
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said a large number of
separatists had fled in the face of sustained fire from
"A significant number of militants have left Slaviansk ...
along the way, our battle groups are greeting them. They are
suffering losses and surrendering," he said in a statement on
his Facebook page.
A source close to the rebels told Reuters they had been
outnumbered by 50 to one. "(The Ukrainian forces) have
greater numbers of troops and military hardware," the source
said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The rebels acknowledged the loss.
Aleksandr Borodai, a leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk
People's Republic, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as
saying: "The punitive forces of Ukraine ... moved into a
"Given the disproportionate numerical superiority of the
enemy troops, units of the armed forces of the Donetsk
People's Republic were forced to leave their previous
positions on the northern sector of the front."
Slaviansk has been the strongest redoubt of militants
fighting government forces in eastern Ukraine. Its 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.
On Saturday evening, a white flag with the St George's ribbon
on it - one of the standards of the self-declared Donetsk
People's Republic - lay on the ground in front of one of the
main buildings used by the rebels.
Soldiers brought out crates of ammunition and several
shoulder-carried grenade launchers and rocket launchers of a
type often used against tanks.
A group of about 15 men in civilian clothes lined up near
Ukrainian soldiers and were accompanied by police though it
was not clear if they were formally under arrest.
"We came here early this morning and those that were here
opened fire rather stupidly because of information they have
received about us. The town is not yet fully under our
control," said one Ukrainian soldier who did not wish to be
Alla Belousova, who lives in Kramatorsk in the eastern
industrial Donbass region, expressed disappointment with
Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"Pass on these words to Putin: the people of the Donbass
believed him for some reason when he said he would help. But
now they (government forces) are killing peaceful civilians
and if that is not genocide I would like to know what is.
"The (rebel) fighters are without shoes and don't have
anything to fight with, she said.
Poroshenko's website said separatist fighters had come under
mortar fire as they tried to break through government forces'
lines. The separatists had lost one tank and other armoured
vehicles, the statement said.
A Ukrainian paratrooper, Eduard, who was at an army
checkpoint going into Slaviansk said: "It was a quiet night
when suddenly a column of separatists appeared and began
firing. They didn't have much luck. Artillery guns hit part
of the town and part of those here."
"All those (separatists) who got to this checkpoint were
killed. Those who were over there ran away," he said,
gesturing higher up the road.
Some of the rebels appeared to have moved to Kramatorsk but
they were pulling out of there quickly on Saturday apparently
fearing air strikes from Ukrainian planes overhead.
People in the town said they had begun to pull out around 4
a.m. and about 100 of them had left the town.
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
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
The talks were to have been aimed at working out an effective
ceasefire observed by the opposing sides. 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.
Poroshenko said on Friday he had suggested a time and venue
for the "contact group" to meet on Saturday. But given the
sudden change in military dynamics in the region the meeting
appeared now to be in question.
HOTBED OF RESISTANCE
Slaviansk became a hotbed of resistance under the military
command of Igor Strelkov, a Muscovite appointed as defence
minister of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic.
It had increasingly appeared to be going its own way
independently of the rebel groups controlling Donetsk, the
main industrial hub, and Luhansk. Many of the rebel
violations of a government ceasefire which expired last
Monday appeared to come from Slaviansk.
But on Friday, Strelkov made an impassioned appeal for help
to Russia, whom Kiev accuses of fanning the violence. He said
without Moscow's aid the region the rebels lay claim to,
known as Novorossiya (New Russia), would fall to Kiev's
"Slaviansk will fall earlier than the rest," he wrote on a
(Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets and Thomas Grove;
Writing By Richard Balmforth; editing by Ralph Boulton)