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Donetsk, Ukraine -
Ukrainian forces on Saturday flushed pro-Russian rebels from their main eastern stronghold after a devastating shelling campaign 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 the rebels had abandoned the industrial city of 120 000. Russia's Channel One state television also said in a news bulletin that the separatist bastion was “under the Ukrainian forces' control”.
Ukraine's ability to win back Slavyansk - home to one of the country's biggest weapons storage facilities that fell to the insurgents on April 6 - represents a key turning point in three months of low-scale warfare that threatened the very survival of the ex-Soviet state.
“This morning, intelligence reported that Girkin (Igor Strelkov) and a substantial part of the rebels had fled Slavyansk,” Ukraine's Interior Minister Arsen Avakov announced in a Facebook post.
Ukraine alleges that Strelkov is a colonel in Russia's military intelligence unit know as the Chief Intelligence Directorate (GRU).
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 over Russia-speaking eastern regions of Ukraine.
The city's self-proclaimed mayor confirmed that Slavyansk - abandoned by about half its residents and largely cut off from water and power supplies - was now nearly empty.
“The fighters have left. The Ukrainian army is not yet in Slavyansk. There are no authorities in the town,” Volodymyr Pavlenko said by telephone.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko - a 48-year-old chocolate baron who stormed to victory in a May 25 election thanks to his vow to quickly resolve the country's worst crisis since independence in 1991 - ordered his forces to raise the national flag over Slavyansk.
“Local residents are handing over (to government forces) the weapons abandoned by the rebels,” Poroshenko said in a statement.
“This is the disarmament I was talking about when I unveiled my peace plan for resolving the situation in the east.”
Strelkov himself had told the pro-Kremlin LifeNews channel on Friday 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.
Relentless artillery and sniper fire have since killed more than 470 people and left Western leaders frustrated by repeated mediation failures.
Poroshenko on Friday agreed to immediate crisis talks with rebel commanders and Russia aimed at stemming bloodshed that has also inflamed East-West ties.
Clashes in the economically-vital border regions of Lugansk and Donetsk have picked up with renewed vigour since Poroshenko tore up a 10-day ceasefire agreement earlier this week.
His decision was immediately followed by the launch of a “massive” offensive by Kiev that led President Vladimir Putin to warn that Russia had the right to protect its compatriots in Ukraine.
But Poroshenko's call for talks on Saturday have yet to be confirmed by either Moscow or mediators from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) - a Vienna-based body first formed to preserve peace on the continent during the Cold War.
Kiev has balked at the idea of holding round-table discussions in Donetsk - a location in which Moscow carries widespread influence and prefers. But the insurgents refuse to travel to Kiev or EU member countries for fear of their immediate arrest.
The 43-year-old Strelkov remains one the uprising's most mysterious but also powerful figures who effectively headed the new Kiev leadership's most-wanted list.
He holds the title of “defence minister” of the Donetsk People's Republic and is also the chief of the Slavyansk militia.
Strelkov was linked to the April capture and detention of seven OSCE monitors in Slavyansk who were eventually released after an eight-day ordeal following intervention from Moscow.
Kiev has published what it says are intercepted conversations between him and Putin's special envoy Vladimir Lukin talking about the OSCE monitors.
“We want to liberate Ukraine from the fascists,” Strelkov told a Russian tabloid after his units had captured Slavyansk. - Sapa-AFP