Donetsk: Resurgent government forces today hoisted the Ukrainian flag over pro-Russian rebels` main stronghold after a devastating shelling assault that levelled much of the city but delivered Kiev its biggest success of the campaign.
The self-proclaimed mayor of Slavyansk confirmed to AFP that insurgents had abandoned the rustbelt city of 120,000. A local resident said by phone that barricades once manned by the camouflage-clad gunmen stood abandoned since the early morning.
Ukraine`s ability to win back Slavyansk- the country`s biggest weapons storage facilities that fell to the insurgents on April 6 - marks a key turning point in three months of low-scale warfare that has threatened the very survival of the ex-Soviet state.
Ukraine`s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said in a Facebook post that the withdrawal was led by senior militia commander Igor Strelkov alleged by Kiev to be a colonel in Russia`s GRU military intelligence unit.
Both Strelkov and Moscow deny any GRU link despite Western claims that the Kremlin is covertly funding and arming the uprising to destabilise Kiev`s new pro-European leaders and retain control over Russian-speaking eastern regions of Ukraine.
Ukrainian Defence Minister Valeriy Geletey told President Petro Poroshenko that his forces had raised the national flag over city hall "in accordance with your order to liberate Slavyansk."
Poroshenko stormed to victory in a May 25 election thanks to his vow to quickly resolve the country`s worst crisis since independence in 1991.
Most analysts think that the 48-year-old chocolate baron desperately needed an early success in the campaign to secure the trust of Ukrainians frustrated by their underfunded army`s inability to stand up to what they see as Russian aggression.
"The departure of the fighters was a surprise. Nobody was aware it was happening," city resident Kolya Cherep told AFP by telephone.
"This morning, I saw that there were no fighters in front of the town hall then I saw that there were none manning the barricades in town," he said.
Strelkov himself had told the pro-Kremlin LifeNews channel yesterday that his units "will be destroyed. Within a week, two weeks at the latest" unless Russia helped secure an immediate truce or moved in its troops.
Slavyansk is the symbolic heart of an uprising sparked by the February ouster of a pro-Kremlin administration in Kiev and fuelled by Russia`s subsequent seizure of Crimea.