Ukrainian troops reclaimed the port city of Mariupol from pro-Russian separatists after heavy clashes on Friday, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said. Ukraine also regained control of a stretch of the border used by rebels to bring arms into Ukraine.
“At 10:34am (7:34 GMT) the Ukrainian flag was raised over City Hall in Mariupol,” Avakov wrote on Facebook, less than six hours after the attack began on Ukraine’s biggest Azov Sea port.
A ministry aide said the government forces surrounded the rebels, giving them 10 minutes to surrender before storming their location. At least five separatists and two servicemen were killed in the battle before many of the rebels fled. Rebels confirmed that five of their fighters were killed in the clashes.
Avakov said National Guard and Interior Ministry units were involved in the battle, as well as special forces.
Mariupol, a city of 500,000 that has changed hands several times in weeks of conflict, is strategically important because it lies along major roads that run from the Russian border into Ukraine.
Avakov said the government forces had also won back control of a 120-km (75-mile) stretch of the border that had fallen to the rebels. It is not clear who controls other parts of the 2,000-km frontier.
Regaining control of the frontier region is vital because Ukraine accuses Moscow of allowing the rebels to bring tanks and other armoured vehicles as well as weapons across the porous border.
A Ukrainian defence analyst, Dmytro Tymchuk, said four Ukrainian soldiers had been killed and 31 wounded in fighting in other parts of east Ukraine in the past 24 hours.
Crisis threatens EU gas supplies
The rebels rose up in the Russian-speaking east and southeast after Russia annexed Crimea in March following the overthrow of pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovich. Yanukovich was deposed following months of pro-EU protests after he refused to sign trade and political deals that would have deepened Kiev's ties with the European Union.
Ukraine intensified military action against the rebels earlier this year and Poroshenko continued escalating operations after he was elected on May 25 but he is also trying to win support for peace talks.
Rebel leaders have not responded to his suggestion that they could be invited to negotiations if they lay down their arms. Rebels in the field have scoffed at the idea of giving up their weapons, saying they do not trust Ukraine's new leader.
Poroshenko’s aides say progress has been made at initial meetings with a Russian envoy and any immediate threat of a Russian invasion has receded. But talks with Russia on ending a row over the pricing of natural gas have stalled.
European Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger, who is brokering the gas talks, said he hoped they would resume on Saturday.
The sides disagree over how much Ukraine should pay for its gas, and Russian state gas exporter Gazprom has threatened to halt supplies to Kiev if it does not start making good on billions of dollars in debt by Monday.
This could disrupt energy supplies to the EU as the bloc receives almost half of its gas imports from Russia, with about half of it arriving via Ukraine.
But Oettinger said in Brussels: “I am optimistic the three parties will do all to avoid a disruption.”
Political ties have also been strained by the appearance of several Russian tanks in east Ukraine on Thursday. Avakov accused Russia of allowing the rebels to bring them across the border and Poroshenko told President Vladimir Putin during phone talks that the situation was “unacceptable”.
Moscow denies that it is supporting the pro-Russian separatist uprising in the east.
Russia has already been hit by US and EU sanctions over the crisis in Ukraine, with Western nations threatening to impose more restrictions.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)
Date created : 2014-06-13