Ukraine claims victory in pro-Russian rebel stronghold

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DONETSK, UkraineUkraine’s forces claimed a significant success against pro-Russian insurgents on Saturday, chasing them from a key stronghold in the country’s embattled east.

Rebels fleeing from the city of Slovyansk vowed to regroup elsewhere and fight on.

President Petro Poroshenko said in a statement that government troops took Slovyansk, a city of about 100,000 that has been a center of the fighting between Kiev’s troops and the pro-Russian insurgents, after a night of fighting.

Poroshenko ordered the armed forces to raise the Ukrainian flag over the city, which has been under control of the rebels since early April when they seized the city’s administrative and police buildings.

Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for the National Security and Defense Council, said 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,” Lysenko told journalists.

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.”

Alexei, a driver and local Slovyansk resident who would not give his last name for fear of reprisal, told the AP by phone that he heard bombing throughout the night. When the bombing stopped in the early morning, he left his house and saw that all the rebel checkpoints were abandoned. He said there was some damage to buildings in the center of the city, but said much of the rest of the city had been left untouched.

A rebel commander who would only give his nom de guerre as Pinochet told the AP that rebels had relocated to the nearby town of Kramatorsk, 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Slovyansk. But outside Kramatorsk, an AP reporter saw an abandoned checkpoint and several hundred rebels, armed and in uniform, driving in minibuses in the direction of Donetsk.

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