Ukrainian government vows to retake more rebel-held territory quickly

After stronghold of Slavyansk retaken, Poroshenko says battle not over

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 July, 2014, 4:31am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 July, 2014, 4:31am

Ukraine's government said it would quickly seize more territory from rebels after retaking the separatist stronghold of Slavyansk in what President Petro Poroshenko called a turning point in the fight for control of the country's east.

Government forces routed rebels in the flashpoint city on Saturday and raised the blue-and-yellow national flag over what had for months been a separatist redoubt.

Yesterday, Ukrainian forces shelled parts of the rebel-held town of Luhansk near the Russian border, hitting a battery-making factory and other buildings, Russia's Itar-Tass news agency reported, quoting rebels in the town.

It said some people were wounded but there was no further word on casualties. "People are hurriedly fleeing to bomb shelters or are leaving the area that is being shelled," it said.

Poroshenko tweeted yesterday: "My order is now in effect - tighten the ring around the terrorists. Continue the operation to liberate Donetsk and Luhansk regions," he said, naming Ukraine's two major eastern parts that have boiled with separatist rebellion since April.

In a statement, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said: "We have a plan of action … We will move forward every day."

There were no immediate figures for casualties caused by the government offensive in Slavyansk, which comes after Poroshenko refused to renew a unilateral ceasefire and ordered the resumption of a government offensive on June 30.

Ukrainian forces said they now had full control of Slavyansk and the nearby town of Kramatorsk. Many rebels appeared to have retreated towards Donetsk, the east's main industrial hub where separatists first declared a "people's republic".

Armed rebels were patrolling one of the main streets of Donetsk yesterday, local news agency Novosti Donbass said.

Slavyansk has been the most important stronghold of the militants fighting government forces in mainly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine. The town's recapture 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.

"This is not the final victory, and no time for fireworks. But the clearing out of people armed to the teeth from Slavyansk has huge symbolic importance. It is the beginning of the turning point in the battle with fighters for the territorial integrity of Ukraine," Poroshenko said.

He said hostages held there by the separatists had been released and a significant number of weapons had been seized.

But he warned that the rebels were regrouping in other big towns and he said he was far from euphoric.

Andriy Lysenko, a senior official of Ukraine's "anti-terrorist operation", said: "The bands of terrorists are demoralised but they are all the same carrying out treacherous attacks on Ukrainian forces."

In Slavyansk and neighbouring areas, he said, scores of rebels were surrendering. "Those who are giving themselves up are providing information about units of [rebel] fighters and where weapons are."


Ukrainian Orthodox Church head dies at age 78

The head of Ukraine's Orthodox Church has died at 78 after leading it for more than two decades during the tumultuous post-Soviet period.

Metropolitan Volodymyr, who had been credited with stabilising the church, died on Saturday "after a long illness", the church announced.

In his more than 20 years as head of the country's largest church, Volodymyr weathered the breakaway of two groups which declared themselves independent of the Moscow patriarchate, which incorporates the Ukrainian church. Observers say he succeeded in preventing even more splits.

"He will go down in history as the saviour of the Ukrainian Orthodoxy during a very difficult historical moment, as the preserver of the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodoxy," said Andrei Zolotov, a Russian journalist and expert on the Orthodox Church.

Associated Press