The advances are significant victories for the pro-European
leadership in a military operation to crush the armed separatist
rebellion that began in east Ukraine in April and hold the former
Soviet republic of 45 million together.
"At 10:34 a.m. (0734 GMT) the Ukrainian flag was raised over City
Hall in Mariupol," Interior Minister Arsen Avakov wrote on Facebook,
less than six hours after the attack began on the city of 500,000,
Ukraine's biggest Azov Sea port.
A ministry aide said the government forces stormed the rebels after
they were surrounded and given 10 minutes to surrender. At least
five separatists and two servicemen were killed in the battle before
many of the rebels fled.
Mariupol, which has changed hands several times in weeks of
conflict, is strategically important because it lies on major roads
from the southeastern border with Russia into the rest of Ukraine
and steel is exported through the port.
Regaining control of the long and winding frontier is also vital for
the government because it accuses Moscow of allowing the rebels to
bring tanks, other armoured vehicles and guns across the porous
Avakov said the government forces had won back control of a 120-km
(75-mile) stretch of the border that had fallen to the rebels, but
it is not clear who controls other parts of the about 2,000-km
The rebels, who have taken over several towns and cities and want
east Ukraine to become part of Russia, confirmed five of their
fighters were killed in the fighting for Mariupol.
Avakov said National Guard and Interior Ministry units were involved
in the battle, as well as special forces.
A Ukrainian defence analyst, Dmytro Tymchuk, said four Ukrainian
soldiers had been killed and 31 wounded in fighting in other parts
of east Ukraine in the past 24 hours. The death toll is not known
but several hundred people have been reported killed in clashes this
year in Kiev and the east of the country.
GAS TALKS TO RESUME
The rebels rose up in the Russian-speaking east and southeast after
Russia annexed Crimea in March following the overthrow of
Moscow-leaning President Viktor Yanukovich, who had triggered
protests by spurning trade and political pacts that would have
deepened ties with the European Union.
The new president, Petro Poroshenko, intensified the military
operation against the rebels after he was elected on May 25 but is
also trying to win support for a peace plan.
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Rebel leaders have not responded to his suggestion they could be
invited to talks if they lay down their arms, and rebels in the
field have scoffed at the idea of giving up their weapons, saying
they do not trust him.
Poroshenko's aides say progress has been
made at initial meetings with a Russian envoy, and any immediate
threat of a Russian invasion has receded, but talks on solving a
natural gas pricing row with Russia have stalled.
European Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger, who is brokering
the gas talks, said he hoped they would resume on Saturday.
The sides disagree over how much Ukraine should pay for its gas, and
Russian state gas exporter Gazprom has threatened to turn off the
taps to Kiev if it does not start paying billions of dollars in
debts by Monday. This could disrupt supplies to the EU as it gets
about half its gas imports from Russia, half of them via Ukraine.
But Oettinger said in Brussels: "I am optimistic the three parties
will do all to avoid a disruption."
Political ties have also been strained by the appearance of several
tanks in east Ukraine. Avakov accused Russia on Thursday of allowing
the rebels to bring them across the border and Poroshenko told
President Vladimir Putin by phone that the situation was
Evidence that Russia is directly assisting the rebels militarily
would implicate Moscow in the uprising, making a mockery of its
denials of a role in the fighting. Russia did not immediately
respond to the accusations and it was not clear how Putin reacted to
Poroshenko by phone. His country has already been hit by U.S. and EU
sanctions over events in Ukraine and could face more.
(Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets and by Barbara Lewis in
Brussels, Writing by Timothy Heritage; editing by Janet McBride)
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