December 21, 2014
Ukraine government forces recapture separatist stronghold
Ukrainian forces routed pro-Russian rebels in a flashpoint area of eastern Ukraine today 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 government control.
Newly-appointed Defence Minister Valery Heletey appeared confident in reporting to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
"Your order to free Slaviansk from the (separatist) fighters has been carried out," he was quoted as saying on the presidential website.
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 Soviet republic.
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 130,000.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said a large number of separatists had fled in the face of sustained fire from Ukrainian forces.
"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.
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 large-scale offensive.
"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."