Ukrainian troops have overtaken the rebel stronghold of Slovyansk in the country's east in a nighttime offensive, and President Petro Poroshenko ordered the armed forces to raise the Ukrainian flag over the city.
Meanwhile, there still was no reply Saturday from Russia or separatist leaders in Ukraine to Poroshenko's request for a new round of talks.
Officials and witnesses said the pro-Russian separatists evacuated Slovyansk Saturday after coming under mortar fire from government forces.They'd controlled the city of 100,000 since sezing administrative and police buildings in early April..
The government's retaking of the city marks a rare victory in Ukraine's struggle to quell the months-long rebellion.
“A significant number of militants have left Slovyansk ... along the way, our battle groups are greeting them. They are suffering losses and surrendering,'' Ukraine’s interior minister, Arsen Avakov, said on his Facebook page, Reuters reported Saturday.
The news service, citing Russia’s Interfax news agency, reported that the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic leader Aleksandr Borodai said, ``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.''
Another leader of the republic, Andrei Purgin, told the Associated Press the Ukraine government’s attacks had left Slovyansk “in ruins.”
The AP quoted Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council spokesman Andriy Lysenko as telling journalists that government forces were intent on routing insurgents from the city: “Slovyansk is under siege. Now an operation is going on to neutralize small groups hiding in buildings where peaceful citizens are living.”
Insurgents also were seen departing Kramatorsk, a city 15 kilometers or 9 miles from Slovyansk. A Reuters reporter on Saturday reported witnessing “a convoy of around 20 military transport vehicles and buses filled with armed rebels driving out of Kramatorsk.”
Poroshenko said he suggested a time and place for the talks during a Friday phone call with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. He said he was waiting for the other side to confirm.
The European Union and United States have threatened Russia with more sanctions if Moscow and the pro-Russian fighters do not take steps to de-escalate the crisis.
The fighting has picked up since Ukraine ended a unilateral cease-fire earlier in the week.