Ukrainian soldiers on guard at a checkpoint near Slaviansk, Ukraine. (AFP)
Near Slaviansk (Ukraine), July 5 (Reuters): Pro-Russian rebels were pulling out of a flashpoint area of eastern Ukraine today as authorities in Kiev savoured a major military success in their three-month fight against the separatists.
A Reuters reporter saw a convoy of around 20 military transport vehicles and buses filled with armed rebels driving out of Kramatorsk where they had gone after apparently earlier fleeing the separatist stronghold of Slaviansk nearby.
Interior minister Arsen Avakov said a large number of separatists had fled Slaviansk after sustained fire from Ukrainian forces.
“A significant number of militants have left Slaviansk ... along the way, our battle groups are greeting them. They are suffering losses and surrendering,” he said in a statement on his Facebook page.
A source close to the rebels told Reuters the rebels had been outnumbered by 50 to one. “(The Ukrainian forces) have greater numbers of troops and military hardware,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Aleksandr Borodai, a leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying: “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.”
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, after hearing a report from his newly-appointed chief of the armed forces general staff, ordered the Ukrainian flag to be run up on public buildings in Slaviansk.
The Ukrainian flag was later flying over Slaviansk, the website said, in place of the Russian one which had been there since rebels took over key buildings in April.
Slaviansk has been the strongest redoubt of militants fighting government forces in eastern Ukraine. Its re-capture would be Kiev’s most notable military victory in three months of fighting in which more than 200 Ukrainian troops have been killed as well as hundreds of civilians and rebels.
Poroshenko’s website said separatist fighters had come under mortar fire as they tried to break through government forces' lines. The separatists had lost one tank and other armoured vehicles, the statement said. “The President gave the order ... for the state flag to be raised on Slaviansk’s town council offices,” the website said.
A Ukrainian paratrooper, Eduard, who was at an army checkpoint going into Slaviansk said: “It was a quiet night when suddenly a column of separatists appeared and began firing. They didn’t have much luck.”