Ukrainian forces yesterday flushed pro-Russian rebels from their main eastern stronghold after a devastating shelling campaign that leveled much of the city, but delivered Kiev its biggest success of the campaign.
The self-proclaimed mayor of Slavyansk confirmed to reporters that the rebels had abandoned the industrial city of 120,000. Russia’s Channel One state television also said in a news bulletin that the separatist bastion was “under the Ukrainian forces’ control.”
Ukraine’s ability to win back Slavyansk — home to one of the country’s biggest weapons storage facilities that fell to the insurgents on April 6 — represents a key turning point in three months of low-scale warfare that threatened the survival of the ex-Soviet state.
“This morning, intelligence reported that [Igor Strelkov] Girkin and a substantial part of the rebels had fled Slavyansk,” Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on Facebook.
Ukraine alleges that Strelkov is a colonel in Russia’s military intelligence unit known as the Chief Intelligence Directorate (GRU).
Both Strelkov and Moscow deny any GRU link, despite Western claims that the Kremlin is covertly funding and arming the uprising to destabilize Kiev’s new pro-European leaders and retain control over Russian-speaking eastern regions of Ukraine.
The city’s self-proclaimed mayor confirmed that Slavyansk — abandoned by about half its residents and largely cut off from water and power supplies — was nearly empty.
“The fighters have left. The Ukrainian army is not yet in Slavyansk. There are no authorities in the town,” Volodymyr Pavlenko said by telephone.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko — a 48-year-old chocolate baron who stormed to victory in a May 25 election thanks to his vow to quickly resolve the country’s worst crisis since independence in 1991 — ordered his forces to raise the national flag over Slavyansk.
“Local residents are handing over [to government forces] the weapons abandoned by the rebels,” Poroshenko said in a statement.
“This is the disarmament I was talking about when I unveiled my peace plan for resolving the situation in the east.”