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Pro-Russian rebels have pulled out a key stronghold in eastern Ukraine ... the beginning of the end for the separatist dream?

Two months ago I watched as the flags of Russia and Donetsk People's Republic were hoisted over the Eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk by pro-Moscow separatist rebels.

Main picture: a Sloviansk resident sees shell damage. Above, Ukrainian troops in the town and a burned-out rebel vehicle
Main picture: a Sloviansk resident sees shell damage. Above, Ukrainian troops in the town and a burned-out rebel vehicle

Yesterday, as Ukrainian government troops recaptured the flashpoint town, the country's blue-and-yellow flag was flying again over what had been the separatist redoubt.

"Your order to free Sloviansk from the separatist fighters has been carried out," newly-appointed Defence Minister Valery Heletey was quoted as telling Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko by the presidential website.

The Ukrainian flag had been run up on the main administrative building that sits off a public square flanked by a giant statue of Lenin.

It was there back in April that I mingled with Sloviansk's townsfolk as masked separatist rebel fighters built sandbag barricades and patrolled the streets carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles.

Foreign journalists were viewed with suspicion then and not welcome, some colleagues even being temporarily detained by shadowy gunmen, many of whom had come from across the border in Russia.

Worried as Sloviansk's 130,000 citizens were at the time about what the future held, little could they have imagined the desperate battle that would ensue for control of this rundown town and the destruction and death it would bring in its wake.

"More than a hundred militiamen have been killed in the last three days," Viktor, a 35-year-old Sloviansk man who had a shrapnel wound in his leg, told reporters yesterday. "The mood is very bad. It seems that we've lost this war. And Russia isn't in a hurry to help."

Earlier on Friday, Alexei, a driver and Sloviansk resident who would not give his last name for fear of reprisals, told journalists by phone he had heard bombing throughout the night.

When the bombardment finally stopped early yesterday morning, he left his house and saw that all the rebel checkpoints were abandoned. He said there was some damage to buildings in the centre of the city, but confirmed much of the rest had been left untouched.

Some separatists supporters claimed otherwise, with Andrei Purgin, a spokesman for the Donetsk People's Republic, saying the army's campaign had left the city "in ruins".

Separatist leader Aleksandr Borodai was quoted by the Interfax news agency 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."

Sloviansk has been the strongest redoubt of separatists fighting government forces in eastern Ukraine.

It was at the epicentre of the uprisings in eastern Ukraine that erupted in April as the separatists took over state buildings, built a powerful arsenal of seized weapons and declared their independence from Kiev, calling the pro-European government there illegitimate.

The crisis began when street protests ousted the Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovich in late February for rejecting a landmark political and trade deal with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia.

Russia subsequently annexed Crimea and separatist revolts against the new Kiev authorities broke out with rebels declaring "people's republics" - such as Donetsk - and saying they wanted to join Russia.

Sloviansk's recapture represents Kiev's most notable military victory in the subsequent three months of fighting in which more than 200 Ukrainian troops have been killed as well as hundreds of civilians and rebels.

Since his recent election Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has wasted no time in taking the fight to the separatists. Last week, he halted a ceasefire and launched the military offensive that has led to the recapture of Sloviansk.

Just as Russian President Vladimir Putin was sending signs that he hopes to de-escalate the conflict, Poroshenko pushed forward, using Ukrainian forces to regain control of restive cities and border posts.

Some among the separatist supporters feel frustrated and angry over what they see as their abandonment by Moscow.

On Friday Igor Strelkov, a Muscovite appointed as defence minister of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, made an impassioned appeal for help to Russia, which Kiev accuses of fanning the violence. He said that without Moscow's aid the region that the separatists lay claim to, known as Novorossiya (New Russia), would fall to Kiev's forces.

"Sloviansk will fall earlier than the rest," he wrote on a rebel website.

In a video posted online late on Friday, Strelkov, said his men had "lost the will to fight".

"They want to live in Russia," he admitted. "But when they tried to assert this right, Russia doesn't want to help."

Strelkov said he believed his fighters had only "two or three weeks" before they were defeated if Russia did not step in.

Many ordinary citizens too in the region who have supported the separatists and believed Russia would fully back them feel betrayed by Moscow's apparent back-tracking.

Alla Belousova, who lives in Kramatorsk, a town near Sloviansk where separatists fighters have fled and are now regrouping, had her own message for the Russian leadership.

"Pass on these words to Putin: the people of the Donbass [Donetsk Region] believed him for some reason when he said he would help. But now they [government forces] are killing peaceful civilians and if that is not genocide I would like to know what is.

"The separatist fighters are without shoes and don't have anything to fight with," she said

A Ukrainian paratrooper, Eduard, who was at an army checkpoint going into Sloviansk told reporters: "It was a quiet night when suddenly a column of separatists appeared and began firing.

"They didn't have much luck. Artillery guns hit part of the town and part of those here."

Gesturing higher up the road he added: "All those separatists who got to this checkpoint were killed. Those who were over there ran away."

Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov confirmed a large number of separatists had fled in the face of sustained fire from Ukrainian forces.

He said in a statement on his Facebook page: "A significant number of militants have left Sloviansk ... along the way, our battle groups are greeting them.

"They are suffering losses and surrendering."

A source close to the separatists meanwhile told correspondents they 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.

Some separatists, however, played down the significance of Ukraine's advances. Pavel Gubarev, the self-described governor of the Donetsk People's Republic, wrote online that the separatists 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."

What is clear is that some of the separatists did move to Kramatorsk, 12 miles to the south of Sloviansk, but residents there yesterday claimed they were pulling out quickly, apparently fearing air strikes from Ukrainian planes.

The exodus had begun around 4am and about 100 fighters were said to be on the move. Eyewitnesses saw a convoy of about 20 military transport vehicles and buses filled with armed separatists driving out of Kramatorsk.

Meanwhile, the Russian foreign ministry said it was bolstering efforts to deliver medical aid to those in eastern Ukraine, but made no mention of the separatists' defeat in Sloviansk or plans to provide military aid.

Separatist leaders have consistently pleaded with the Kremlin for military assistance in the past, and some prominent Russian nationalists have publicly taunted 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 characterisation of the Kiev government as a "fascist junta" that is killing Russian-speakers.

Although Russia has vocally opposed Kiev's actions in eastern Ukraine, Moscow has publicly stayed out of the fight. Behind the scenes, however, the Kremlin continues to constrain the Ukrainian government's ability to defeat the separatist movement.

Despite intensified Ukrainian efforts to take control of border checkpoints, large portions of the country's border, from the Mariupol area in the south to the Luhansk region, remain unsecured. Shootings and ambushes in these porous outlands continue, as does the unchecked flow of weapons, equipment and reinforcements from Russia into eastern Ukraine.

Analysts at the US based independent think-tank Stratfor point out that, as long as the Kremlin supports the movement of fighters and materiel, Kiev will be unable to fully regain control of these eastern regions.

As with Sloviansk, Ukrainian forces will make progress in securing some parts of the border and isolating separatist strongholds, but entering urban areas such as Donetsk and Luhansk would prove costly.

"The armed separatist movement will only be eliminated when the Kremlin decides the separatists are no longer needed as a lever against the government in Kiev," Stratfor analysts said in an assessment of the current situation.

For Russia, the neutralisation and decentralization of Ukraine remains a priority. Moscow's decision-making in regard to its support of separatists in eastern Ukraine will therefore be tied to the Kiev government's willingness to compromise.

For his part Ukrainian President Poroshenko said yesterday he was ready to conduct another round of talks between representatives from Ukraine, Russia and the separatists.

But with the separatists reeling from their attack this weekend, it was unclear whether negotiations could take place.

During my time in Sloviansk I met many residents who did not support the separatists, among them 17-year-old Valentin, a student.

"It will only be better here when these people leave," the young man insisted, referring to the masked armed men in the town who he insisted were Russian.

Yesterday evening events suggested that Valentin and others like him appear to have got their wish.

On the ground in front of one of the main buildings used by the separatists, a white flag with the St George's ribbon on it - one of the standards of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic - lay on the ground.

Ukrainian government troops now in control busied themselves bringing out crates of ammunition and several shoulder-carried grenade launchers and rocket launchers of a type often used against tanks by the separatists.

For now it is a victory of sorts for these Ukrainian soldiers and their government in Kiev. Whether it proves something of a pyrrhic victory remains to be seen. Eastern Ukraine remains on the edge and difficult and dangerous times still lie ahead.

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