KIEV, Ukraine — The Ukrainian flag flew over the conflict-torn separatist stronghold of Slovyansk for the first time in three months on Saturday after rebel militia fled overnight, but promised to continue fighting for control of the country's east.
The news marks a major victory for Ukrainian forces, which stepped up their attack on rebel positions after Kiev ended an ill-tempered ceasefire on Monday, but may prefigure further hostilities as the militias head for the provincial capital.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko wrote on Facebook that Ukrainian troops met the rebels with mortar fire as they tried to leave the city, destroying a tank and four infantry fighting vehicles. Local residents took weapons left behind by the rebels to the Ukrainian soldiers, Poroshenko wrote.
Several dozen hostages kept in a basement for months as human shields discovered just before dawn that the rebels had fled, local website Ostrov reported. The rebels left behind personal effects, weapons, and money and abandoned all the checkpoints around the city, the former hostages said.
Pavel Gubarev, a leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, confirmed that Strelkov's men had left the town to consolidate their forces with other rebels and buy time. "Kutuzov retreated too, and that was the plan," he wrote on Russian Facebook clone VK, referring to the Russian general whose delaying tactics helped defeat Napoleon in the war of 1812. "Russians basically only ever retreat before a decisive victorious battle," he added.
Citing intelligence reports, interior minister Arsen Avakov wrote on Facebook that Slovyansk militia commander, Igor Strelkov, had left the city with most of his troops and headed towards Horlivka, another rebel-held city about 50 miles south. "Our combat groups are 'welcoming' them along the way," he wrote. "The terrorists are suffering losses and surrendering."
Tanya Lokshina, Human Rights Watch's Russia director, told BuzzFeed by phone that she had seen a large column of rebel forces enter Kramatorsk, a town just outside Slovyansk, at 8:45 a.m. "They said, 'The city has fallen. They gave it up. Everyone is leaving.' They were really unhappy, it seems," Lokshina said. Most of the rebels then left in the direction of the provincial capital, Donetsk, a city of about 1 million people 100 miles south. Local media and members of a Kramatorsk Facebook group gave similar accounts.
Dmitry Tymchuk, a pro-Kiev military analyst, wrote on Facebook that over 1,000 rebels had left Kramatorsk, accompanied by local mobsters, with the intent of breaking through into Donetsk. Local media reported explosions in the city around mid-day.
Heavy fighting resumed this week around Slovyansk, the epicenter of the uprising, after Poroshenko, facing considerable pressure from a public frustrated by continued rebel attacks, let a 10-day ceasefire expire on Monday evening. Formerly a quiet spa resort town of 119,000, the city was the first that rebels seized when the conflict began in mid-April. Since then, Ukrainian forces surrounded it and heavily bombarded rebel positions, reducing much of the town to rubble and prompting many of its residents to flee.
The renewed fighting appears to have been too much for the several thousand militia holed up in Slovyansk, who had already struggled for weeks in a town largely without electricity and running water. Strelkov, the pencil-mustached Russian citizen who emerged as Slovyansk's military commander, looked haggard as he told pro-Kremlin cable channel Life News that he was "panicking and worrying" on Friday. The ceasefire had allowed Ukrainian forces to concentrate their forces at over 60 positions around Slovyansk, Strelkov said, from which they shelled the town around the clock.
"If Russia doesn't broker a ceasefire or use its armed forces to intervene for us, for the Russian people that live here, we will be destroyed," Strelkov said.
Ukraine and the European Union say that Strelkov is a Russian military intelligence colonel and his real name is Igor Girkin, which has been partially confirmed by his leaked correspondence.
Ukraine and the US accuse Russia of fomenting the separatist movement and supplying it with tanks, armored vehicles, and heavy artillery it says has crossed the border, which is largely controlled by the separatists. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, denies supporting the rebels and endorsed multi-party unofficial peace talks during the ceasefire that failed to broker an agreement after two rounds of negotiations.
Poroshenko has backed a third round of talks but, angry over the deaths of 27 Ukrainian soldiers during the ceasefire, says combat operations will continue until the separatists agree to lay down their weapons. Putin was visibly taken aback on Tuesday when he gave what had been billed a major foreign policy speech that appeared to have been written on the assumption that negotiations would continue.