SLOVYANSK, Ukraine – Ukrainian troops forced pro-Russian insurgents out of a key stronghold in the country’s embattled east on Saturday, a significant success that suggests the government may finally be making gains in a months-long battle against a spreading separatist insurgency.
As rebels fled from Slovyansk, vowing to regroup elsewhere and fight on, President Petro Poroshenko hailed the recapture of the city as “the start of a turning point” in a battle that has killed more than 400 people since April.
After a night of heavy fighting that saw heavy artillery fire from Ukraine’s troops, government soldiers were in full control of rebel headquarters in Slovyansk, a city of about 100,000 that has been a center of the fighting between Kiev’s troops and the pro-Russian insurgents.
Soldiers raised the Ukrainian flag over the city council building, while troops carried stockpiles of weapons out of the city’s administrative and police buildings, which have been under rebel control since early April.
“It’s not a total victory. But the purging of Slovyansk of these bands, made up of people armed to the teeth, has incredible symbolic importance,” Poroshenko said in a statement posted on his official website.
Artillery fire on rebel forces began late on Friday and lasted into the night. On Saturday, fighting could still be heard on the northern outskirts of the city.
Ukraine’s newly appointed Minister of Defense, Valery Heletey, was milling around with troops in the city center. He said three planes with food and other supplies will soon arrive in Slovyansk.
A spokesman for the National Security and Defense Council said earlier that mopping-up operations were continuing.
“Slovyansk is under siege. Now an operation is going on to neutralize small groups hiding in buildings where peaceful citizens are living,” Andriy Lysenko told journalists in Kiev.
Andrei Purgin of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic told The Associated Press that rebels were evacuating, but claimed the army’s campaign had left the city “in ruins.”
The capture of Slovyansk represented the government’s biggest victory since it abandoned a shaky cease-fire this week and launched an offensive against the separatists. Until now, the Ukrainian army had often appeared feckless in the months-long campaign against the rebels. On Thursday, Poroshenko shook up his defense team, appointing Ukraine’s third defense minister since the former president was ousted in February.
It was not yet clear whether the latest advance has permanently crippled the rebels, many of whom are relocating to other cities.
In the city of Donetsk, streets were deserted on Saturday as local officials urged people to stay at home. They said a battle was ongoing near the Donetsk city airport, but did not provide details.
“Militants from Slovyansk and Kramatorsk have arrived in Donetsk,” said Maxim Rovinsky, spokesman for the city council.
Purgin claimed 150 fighters injured in Slovyansk were in Donetsk for treatment.
“More than a hundred militiamen have been killed in the last three days,” said Viktor, a 35-year-old Slovyansk native who had a shrapnel wound in his leg. “The mood is very bad. It seems that we’ve lost this war. And Russia isn’t in a hurry to help.”