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Ukraine rebels regroup after losing Sloviansk

Pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine are reported to be regrouping in Donetsk after government forces retook some of their main strongholds.

President Petro Poroshenko said the recapture of the rebels’ stronghold of Sloviansk on Saturday was of “huge symbolic importance”.

But he warned it was too early for celebrations.

Despite recent losses, the rebels still hold the regional capitals of Donetsk and Luhansk and other key areas.

Sloviansk had been considered a focal point of the rebellion, and was the military centre of the self-declared separatist People’s Republic of Donetsk.

But on Saturday, following a night of mortar shelling, rebels left the city in a move apparently orchestrated by the breakaway region’s military commander, Igor Strelkov.

An armed pro-Russian rebel stands on the road as others drive past near the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk July 5Many of the pro-Russian fighters pulled back to the regional capital of Donetsk

President Poroshenko said troops had “liberated Sloviansk from terrorists”, and that it was “the start of a turning point in the fight against the militants”.

The rebels said they had staged a “tactical retreat” to Donetsk, the main city in the region.

Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said some rebels had surrendered or were trying to escape by blending in with the civilian population.

But those that remained appeared to be heading next for the town of Horlivka, he said on his Facebook page, and were being confronted on the road by government troops.

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Analysis: David Stern, BBC News, Kiev

On Saturday morning, the insurgents abruptly abandoned two of their main bases of operations, cities which they triumphantly overran three months ago and have maintained as a symbol of their dominance in Ukraine’s east.

The question that no-one can answer right now, however, is whether this in fact constitutes a turning point in the conflict.

The rebels still seem to have large numbers in their ranks, and significant stores of weapons and military hardware. They continue to control a decent amount of territory in the east, though this apparently has been circumscribed somewhat in recent days.

They say they are motivated and will fight to the last man.

Nevertheless, there are indications that the fall of Sloviansk may indeed have been a watershed moment.

Sloviansk: Turning point for Ukraine?

Ukraine crisis timeline

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Sloviansk is the latest of several territorial gains for the government since it launched an offensive this week in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, following the breakdown of a ceasefire.

The Ukrainian government had earlier claimed to have retaken two small towns.

And other reports said Kramatorsk city, near Sloviansk, had also been recaptured.

BBC map
Troops remove ammunition and weapons from a recaptured building (5 July 2014)Troops removed boxes of weapons and ammunition from a recaptured building
Women sit near a destroyed shop in the city of Sloviansk, July 5Parts of Sloviansk have been wrecked by weeks of violent confrontations
A Ukrainian flag is seen over a government building in the city of Sloviansk, Donetsk Region, eastern Ukraine Saturday, July 5The rebels had publicly asked Russia to intervene on Friday, but help did not arrive
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Violence erupted in eastern Ukraine in April, when separatists declared independence in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Earlier this week, the government claimed to have retaken two-thirds of the territory in those regions.

The current crisis started when President Viktor Yanukovych decided last November not to sign an agreement with the EU.

The decision led to street protests in Kiev, and Mr Yanukovich was eventually overthrown.

The developments angered Russia, which annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region.

Source:BBC

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