Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko promised to continue a military offensive against pro-Russian rebels after his forces retook key insurgent strongholds.
Recapturing Slovyansk and Kramatorsk in the battle-torn eastern part of the country is the biggest victory so far in Ukraine’s campaign against rebels. The pro-Russian insurgents are regrouping in Donetsk in preparation for an onslaught against the regional capital, Denis Pushilin, leader of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, said on Twitter, adding that his forces abandoned two more villages overnight.
“This is not the final victory, and no time for fireworks,” Poroshenko said in a statement on the president’s website. “This is the beginning of a crucial moment in the combat against insurgents.”
After three months of fighting the insurrection, government forces are turning the tide of a conflict that sparked Russia’s tensest showdown with the U.S. and its European allies since the fall of the Berlin Wall. With the blue-and-yellow national flag raised in the separatist strongholds, Ukraine vowed to restore infrastructure and ensure supplies of food and water for the population.
As the insurgents lost ground, Russia urged a renewal of peace talks, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov telling his German and French counterparts yesterday that a durable cease-fire is needed in the wake of the “sharp deterioration of the situation” and the rising toll on civilians and infrastructure.
To be sustained, a truce “must be respected by all parties,” French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius said in an interview published in Journal du Dimanche.
The rebels have retreated across large swaths of territory in the mainly Russian-speaking border regions. Ukrainian government authorities said July 4 that they controlled almost two-thirds of the country’s eastern districts.
Clashes between the separatists and Ukrainian forces continued in the east. There was no word on when internationally sponsored peace talks may resume. Poroshenko said he would tighten the circle around the militants.
Rebels continue to surrender in the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, with government attacks on rebel bases, checkpoints and ammunition dumps inflicting significant losses and stoking infighting among insurgents, Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry in Kiev, was cited as saying today by the Interfax news service. Troops are working to secure the border and isolate the conflict zone, he said.
While warplanes yesterday bombed insurgent tanks and artillery, aviation won’t be used to strike rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk to avoid civilian casualties in the regional capitals, where Ukraine plans to dispatch special forces, according to Lysenko.
Two drones were detected flying above the Donetsk region city of Mariupol overnight, with one aircraft shot down by Ukraine’s army, according to a statement by the press office for the military. An army grouping twice came under fire, with the attackers using mortars, it said. No casualties were reported on the Ukrainian side.
The months-long conflict is coming to a head after Poroshenko sent troops to dislodge the rebels in the east after ending a cease-fire on July 1. Poroshenko had predicted a new round of international peace talks as early as yesterday, though there was no further word on when that might take place.
The rebels had to leave positions in Slovyansk “to save 45,000 civilians still located there,” as well as because of the superiority of government forces, Andrei Purgin, deputy premier of the Donetsk People’s Republic said by telephone. He said the militants may take part in peace talks with Ukraine’s authorities if Russia and the European Union initiate consultations and act as mediators.
National Security Council chief Andriy Parubiy said July 4 in Kiev that Ukrainian forces controlled 23 of the 36 districts in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. As government forces dislodge rebels from a swath of territory in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, Russia is sending weapons across the frontier and allowing militants to attack border checkpoints from its territory, Ukrainian security officials said.
Russia rejects the “tired and unsubstantiated” accusations that it’s arming insurgents, according to the Foreign Ministry in Moscow.
The Ukrainian president said a cease-fire is only possible after he gets confirmation it will be honored by separatists. Poroshenko has blamed the insurgents for breaking the 10-day truce more than 100 times.
“The situation is very tough,” Poroshenko said in the statement yesterday. “There are a lot of tests ahead.’
To contact the reporters on this story: Volodymyr Verbyany in Kiev at firstname.lastname@example.org; Daria Marchak in Kiev at email@example.com; Stepan Kravchenko in Moscow at firstname.lastname@example.org