President Petro Poroshenko, drawing confidence from the fall of
the rebel bastion of Slaviansk at the weekend, named a new chief of
military operations in the east following his appointment of an
aggressive new defense minister who ruled out negotiations until the
separatists lay down their arms.
One rebel leader played down the loss of Slaviansk as a military
expedient and said the hundreds of fighters who were able to move
from the town to the regional capital Donetsk were preparing a
command structure to defend that city and hit back:
"We're not preparing ourselves for a siege. We are preparing
ourselves for action," Alexander Borodai, prime minister of the
self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, told a Russian online
newspaper during a visit to the Russian capital.
Sporadic shooting was heard from various parts of Donetsk overnight
though no specific incidents were reported. But in Luhansk, a city
on the border with Russia where rebels also control key buildings,
two people in a minibus were killed by a shell that exploded nearby,
a municipal official said.
"There is an exchange of fire among the separatists. They are
shooting at each other," Iryna Verigina told a Ukrainian television
station by telephone from Luhansk.
Poroshenko, installed in office just a month ago, named Vasyl
Grytsak to head the "anti-terrorist center", making him operational
chief in the drive to crush the rebels.
The move continued his shake-up of the military and security
leadership in which he has appointed a hardline defense minister to
bring fresh vigor to the fight against the insurgency.
Grytsak, a 53-year-old police lieutenant-general and 20-year veteran
of the state security apparatus, replaces Vasyl Krutov, who had
headed the "anti-terrorist center" since mid-April.
Despite some successes against the rebels, Krutov and other security
officials have come under criticism for the patchy performance of
the armed forces and big military losses including the downing by
the rebels of an Ilyushin Il-76 plane in June with the deaths of
more than 49 crew and servicemen.
FOCUS ON DONETSK
Pro-Russian rebels have been fighting government forces since April
when they set up separatist republics in the Russian-speaking east
after political upheaval in Kiev led to the ousting of a
Moscow-backed president followed by Russia's annexation of Crimea.
They have brought down military helicopters and ambushed government
forces on the ground in three months of fighting in which more than
200 Ukrainian troops have been killed, along with hundreds of
civilians and rebels.
The fall of Slaviansk to government forces at the weekend has now
swung the focus onto Donetsk, raising the question of how the Kiev
military will go about breaking the resistance in a sprawling
industrial city with a population of over 800,000.
Since hundreds of rebels flooded into the city at the weekend, armed
men have been out on the streets, setting up new barricades and
checkpoints and stopping pedestrians and motorists to run spot
Borodai brushed off suggestions that Slaviansk had been a defeat,
portraying it as a successful tactical withdrawal, though Kiev says
the rebels sustained heavy losses.
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He said Igor Strelkov, a Muscovite who commanded forces in
Slaviansk, would take over as commander-in-chief for defending
Donetsk. "A strict vertical command will be built through all armed
units," Borodai told Russia's gazeta.ru. "Igor and I will be able to
build a very effective, clear vertical."
Two bridges were
destroyed on Monday after Ukraine's deputy security council chief
said forces would blockade the cities Donetsk and Luhansk.
But Borodai scoffed at talk of Kiev having the resources to do this.
"Any blockade of these two cities by the Ukrainian army is
impossible. The Ukrainian army and its resources are not in a state
to carry out a real blockade on even one Donetsk, so I don't see a
real threat in that in the future," he said.
CEASEFIRE OFF AGENDA
In the worst crisis between the West and Russia since the Cold War,
Moscow has denied accusations of fanning separatism in Ukraine's
east and allowing military equipment and fighters to cross into
Ukraine to support the separatists.
Though Borodai said in his interview that he had been in
"consultations" in Russia, many rebels now reproach President
Vladimir Putin's administration in Moscow, which is under threat
from further Western sanctions, for giving them too little help.
The Ukrainian army's victory in Slaviansk has pushed peace talks
involving separatist leaders off the agenda. A meeting of an
informal "contact group" involving envoys from Kiev and Moscow had
been planned for the weekend, under an agreement in Berlin last
week, to discuss conditions for a truce.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe website said
"high representatives" from Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE did in fact
meet in Kiev on Sunday, though separatist leaders did not appear to
The group had been given the task of working out the basis for an
effective ceasefire observed by both sides. But the new defense
minister, Valery Heletey, in remarks reported on Tuesday, said there
could be no fresh talk of a ceasefire until the rebels had laid down
"The president of Ukraine was categoric on this," he was quoted as
saying by his ministry. "Now negotiations can be possible only after
the fighters have definitively surrendered their arms."
(Additional reporting by Thomas Grove and Natalia Zinets in Kiev and
Maria Tsvetkova in Donetsk; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)
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