Genya Savilov / AFP / Getty Images

Ukraine claims victory in crucial rebel stronghold

Government says its troops have recaptured the city of Slovyansk, a hotbed of pro-Russian resistance

Pro-Russian rebels were pulling out of a flashpoint area of eastern Ukraine on Saturday as authorities in Kiev savored a major military success in their three-month fight against the separatists.

President Petro Poroshenko issued a statement saying government troops had taken Slovyansk, a city of about 130,000 that has been at the center of fighting between Kiev's troops and pro-Russian rebels, after a night of combat. The city had fallen under the military command of Igor Strelkov, a Muscovite appointed as defense minister of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic.

Poroshenko commanded the armed forces to raise the Ukrainian flag over Slovyansk, which had been under rebel control since early April when they seized the city's administrative and police buildings.

Andrei Purgin of the Donetsk People's Republic told The Associated Press that rebels were evacuating, and said the army's campaign had left the city "in ruins."

Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for the Kiev government’s 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.

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 that some buildings had been damaged in the center of the city, but that much of the rest of it had been left untouched.

A rebel commander who would only give his nom de guerre, Pinochet, told the AP that rebels had relocated to the nearby town of Kramatorsk, 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.

The capture of Slovyansk would be a major victory for the Ukrainian army, which has 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’s downfall in February.

Some rebels played down the significance of Ukraine's advances. Pavel Gubarev, the self-described governor of the Donetsk People's Republic, wrote online that the rebels had staged a tactical retreat.

"Kutuzov also retreated, as that was the plan," he wrote, referring to the 19th-century general Mikhail Kutuzov who is credited with defeating Napoleon's forces in Russia. "In general, Russians only retreat before a decisively victorious battle."

Others in the rebels' ranks pleaded publicly with Russia to assist them in their cause. In a video posted online late on Friday, Igor Girkin, the self-described "commander in chief of the Donetsk People's Republic," said his men had “lost the will to fight.”

"They want to live in Russia," said Girkin, also known by his nom de guerre, Igor Strelkov. "But when they tried to assert this right, Russia doesn't want to help." He said he believed the troops had only "two or three weeks" before they were defeated if Russia did not step in.

Rebel leaders have pleaded with the Kremlin for military assistance in the past, and some prominent Russian nationalists have publicly taunted Russian President Vladimir Putin, accusing him of cowardice. Such criticism could resonate with the broader Russian public, which has been heavily influenced by Russian state television's characterization of the Kiev government as a "fascist junta" that is killing Russian-speakers.

Poroshenko said Friday he was ready to conduct another round of talks between representatives from Ukraine, Russia and the rebels.

Wire services

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