SLAVYANSK , Ukraine: Resurgent Ukrainian forces yesterday pursued retreating pro-Russian rebels after seizing their symbolic bastion in a morale-boosting win that appeared to dim hopes for a ceasefire in the bloody separatist insurgency.
Western-backed President Petro Poroshenko called the moment when his troops hoisted the Ukrainian flag over the militias’ seat of power in Slavyansk “a turning point” in a campaign that has killed nearly 500 people and inflamed East-West ties.
The rebels admitted suffering heavy losses while abandoning the strategic city nearly three months to the day after its capture marked the onset of a new and even more bloody chapter in Ukraine’s worst crisis since independence in 1991.
Most analysts think Poroshenko desperately needed a battlefield success one month into his presidency to secure the trust of Ukrainians frustrated by their underfunded army’s inability to stand up to what they see as Russian aggression.
But Poroshenko cautioned that insurgents were regrouping around the million-strong eastern industrial hub of Donetsk and vowed to flush out “terrorists who are entrenching themselves in large cities”. Ukrainian forces yesterday reported recapturing four small cities straddling the road between Slavyansk and Donetsk.
“Yes, we are losing a lot, but I am sure that our defence of Donetsk will mark a turning point,” Donetsk rebel leader Denis Pushilin confirmed in a tweet. “We will win.”
But Pushilin and his allies only managed to bring out 2,000 supporters yesterday for what was meant to be a massive rally in central Donetsk designed to display the intensity of the Russian-speaking region’s independence drive. And many in Slavyansk seemed relieved to see the gunmen finally leave their shelled-out city’s streets. “We felt like hostages,” a retired teacher named Anna Gribnikova said a few steps away from a line of several hundred patiently waiting for their two loaves of bread being handed out per person by Ukrainian relief staff. AFP