Ukrainian security officials said Sunday they were in full control of the former rebel stronghold of Slovyansk after government troops retook the key eastern city in a victory that President Petro Poroshenko said could mark a turning point in the government’s months-long fight against pro-Russian separatists.
Government forces routed separatists on Saturday and raised the blue and yellow national flag again over the flashpoint city of about 100,000 people.
No casualty figures were immediately available, but Ukrainian security officials said there had been no deaths on the side of government forces.
"Ukrainian forces fully control the towns of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk," said Andriy Lysenko, an official in the country’s "anti-terrorist operation," adding that the government had begun to rebuild the town's shattered infrastructure and to ensure food and drinking water for residents.
Speaking in a televised address Saturday night, Poroshenko hailed the victory as a significant symbolic moment.
"This is not full victory. But the clearing out of people armed to the teeth from Slovyansk has huge symbolic importance. It is the beginning of the turning point in the battle with fighters for the territorial integrity of Ukraine," he said.
He said hostages held in the city by the separatists had been released, and a significant amount of weapons had been seized.
But he warned that the rebels were regrouping in other big towns, and he said he himself was far from euphoric.
"There are further tests ahead," he said.
Lysenko said that "the bands of terrorists are demoralized but they are all the same carrying out treacherous attacks on Ukrainian forces."
But he also said that scores of insurgents were surrendering in Slovyansk and neighboring areas. "Those who are giving themselves up are providing information about units of (rebel) fighters and where weapons are," Lysenko said.
It was not yet clear whether the capture of Slovyansk has permanently crippled the insurgents.
Many of the hundreds of armed rebels who fled Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, 12 miles to the south, have converged on Donetsk – the main industrial hub in the region where separatists first declared a "people's republic" and expressed their wish to join Russia.
A rebel commander in Donetsk said Sunday that they would regroup to renew their fight against the Ukrainian government.
The insurgents control Donetsk’s regional administration building and move freely about the city center, but Ukrainian forces in May repelled their attempt to take control of the Donetsk airport in a furious battle that left dozens of rebel fighters dead.
Igor Girkin, the defense minister of the separatist republic, said in a video interview Sunday with the Russian television channel Life News that he had arrived in Donetsk from Slovyansk.
"We will continue the combat operations and will try not to make the same mistakes that we made in the past," said Girkin, a Russian also known by his nom de guerre, Igor Strelkov. Ukrainian authorities identify him as a veteran of the Russian military intelligence agency.
Nina Yakovleva, a 45-year-old accountant and resident of Donetsk, said she expected nothing good to come of the convergence of rebels in the city.
"We are afraid that Donetsk will be left in ruins like Slovyansk," she said. "The rebels have brought us war and fear."
Pro-Russian insurgents also have been fighting Ukrainian troops in the neighboring Luhansk region, which like Donetsk sits along the border with Russia.