DONETSK, Ukraine: Retreating pro-Russian insurgents dug in Monday in Ukraine’s sprawling industrial hub of Donetsk after government forces scored a string of morale-boosting victories in the bloody battle over the ex-Soviet state.
The eastern home of 1 million mostly Russian speakers has been flooded with convoys carrying hundreds of fighters and scores of anti-aircraft guns from five smaller surrounding cities where Ukrainian flags were flying for the first time in three months.
The rebels erected checkpoints along the main roads leading into Donetsk while the center of the riverbank city itself saw several restaurants and shops shutter their doors.
Two rail bridges were blown up just north and east of the city – adding to another link damaged Friday as part of an apparent campaign to barricade Donetsk. Pictures showed a cargo train balanced perilously over a highway and a broken span sagging under its weight.
The separatists’ “tactical retreat” began Saturday with the fall of their symbolic bastion Slavyansk, and continued until government forces had reached the very gates of the region’s main metropolis.
Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council deputy head Mykhailo Koval said Monday that soldiers now intended to complete a “full blockade” of Donetsk and the neighboring stronghold of Lugansk – both capitals of their own “People’s Republics.”
Koval said their containment would be followed by “corresponding measures that will force the separatists, the bandits to lay down their arms.”
His comments underscored the dilemma facing Western-backed President Petro Poroshenko as he seeks to fulfill his May 25 election vow to quickly end Ukraine’s worst crisis since independence in 1991.
The conflict has claimed the lives of nearly 500 people and displaced tens of thousands across an economically vital region that has long viewed the more nationalistic west of Ukraine and Kiev with a mixture of hostility and mistrust.
A shelling campaign of either Donetsk or Lugansk of the type that pulverized parts of Slavyansk would seem unimaginable because of both the inevitable toll and the high probability of an already-fuming Kremlin responding by sending in its troops.
But the rebels have shown few signs of being ready to either sue for peace or engage Kiev in contacts that could lead to a political settlement now being promoted urgently by Germany and France.
Separatist leader Denis Pushilin took to Twitter from an undisclosed location Monday to paint a picture of insurgents on the rebound.
He claimed that his men had killed “tens” of soldiers from the Ukrainian irregular forces’ Azov Battalion in the eastern coal-mining region of Saur-Mogila.
“After massacring the fascists ... I understood the words of one of my colleagues: we abandoned Slavyansk to take Kiev,” Pushilin declared.
Ukraine’s army made no mention of battles being waged around Saur-Mogila in its daily overview of the preceding night’s violence.
The Kiev-backed administration of Lugansk said separately that several people were wounded and buildings damaged when the outskirts of the city of 420,000 were hit by artillery shells.
The surge of optimism in Kiev has raised the pitch of domestic calls on Poroshenko not to bow to pressure from his Western allies and sign another truce with the rebels.