Donetsk: Panicked refugees flooded highways and packed trains heading out of the main remaining rebel strongholds in eastern Ukraine on Saturday fearing an attack by government forces who lost 30 servicemen to defiant militants.
Separatists killed 19 troops in a hail of heavy rocket fire yesterday near the Russian border in a bloody reminder of their resolve to reverse the recent tide of government gains across the east of the country.
The military said four other troops died elsewhere yesterday and seven more were killed overnight in attacks that also left more than 120 soldiers wounded.
Ukraine`s new Western-backed leader vowed to step up the push east and take revenge on the militias responsible, which could shatter all hopes of a truce.
"The rebels will pay for the life of every one of our servicemen with tens and hundreds of their own," President Petro Poroshenko told an emergency security meeting.
The militant talk convinced many in the million-strong eastern industrial hub of Donetsk -- where gunmen who have been abandoning surrounding cities since last weekend have been retreating -- that their city was about to be bombed.
The local mayor rushed out to meet Poroshenko yesterday to discuss measures that could "avoid bloodshed and the use of air strikes and heavy artillery".
But separatists in control of Ukraine`s coal mining capital said locals were not taking any chances after three months of fighting that has claimed 550 lives and sparked the worst East-West standoff since the height of the Cold War.
Rebel commander Igor Strelkov told reporters that a "spontaneous evacuation" was also under way in the neighbouring separatist bastion of Lugansk.
"I would say that one car in five is filled with refugees," said a young separatist volunteer manning a roadblock around 20 kilometres east of Donetsk.
Political talk shows in the city yesterday were filled with people questioning tactics and demanding to know why most of the rebels were allowed to slip out of the towns and cities they had abandoned in recent days.