The advances are significant victories for the pro-European
leadership in a military operation to crush the rebellion, which
began in east Ukraine in April, and hold the country together.
Parallel peace moves are moving slowly, however, and Russia is
threatening to cut gas supplies to Ukraine from Monday in a row over
In central Mariupol, police cordoned off several streets, where
roadblocks of sandbags and concrete blocks, once manned by rebels,
were riddled with bullet holes, and the burnt-out hulk of an
armoured personnel carrier with rebel insignia smouldered.
"At 10:34 a.m. (0734 GMT), the Ukrainian flag was raised over City
Hall in Mariupol," Interior Minister Arsen Avakov wrote on Facebook.
That was less than six hours after the attack began on the city of
500,000, Ukraine's biggest port on the Azov Sea.
A ministry aide said government forces had attacked after
surrounding the rebels and giving them 10 minutes to surrender. At
least five separatists and two servicemen were killed before many of
the rebels fled.
A group of about 100 Mariupol residents, who had gathered in the
centre to show their opposition to the government's actions,
exchanged obscenities and crude gestures with Ukrainian soldiers
driving through town in a column of armoured trucks.
"The government brought everything here, including a cannon ...
people were not allowed to come and witness how the government was
shooting its own citizens," 52-year-old Andrei Nikodimovich said.
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 full control of the 2,000-km (1,200-mile) 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
Avakov said government forces had won back control of a 120-km
(75-mile) stretch of border that had fallen to the rebels, but it
was unclear who controlled other parts of the frontier.
In Washington, the U.S. State Department said Russia had sent tanks,
heavy weapons and rocket launchers to Ukraine in recent days in
support of separatists in the east of the country. The confirmation
by the United States of reports that Russian tanks had crossed the
border into Ukraine is likely to deepen strains with Moscow.
"We assess that separatists in eastern Ukraine have acquired heavy
weapons and military equipment from Russia, including Russian tanks
and multiple rocket launchers," State Department spokeswoman Marie
Harf said in a statement.
Harf told a briefing earlier that a convoy of three T-64 tanks,
several MB-21 "or Grad" multiple rocket launchers and other military
vehicles had crossed from Russia into Ukraine in the last three
"This is unacceptable," she said. "A failure by Russia to
de-escalate the situation will lead to additional costs."
[to top of second column]
IMPASSE AT GAS TALKS
The rebels rose up in the Russian-speaking east and southeast after
Russia annexed Crimea in March following the overthrow of
pro-Russian 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.
On Friday, one separatist leader, Denis Pushilin, said he could be
open to the idea of talks provided there were mediators, including
Russia, present. "If an international organisation were also
involved, that would be a plus too," he said in an interview on
Poroshenko's aides say progress has been made at initial meetings
with a Russian envoy and that any immediate threat of a Russian
invasion has receded. But tensions have risen at talks on how much
Ukraine should pay for Russian natural gas.
Ukraine said it was preparing for gas supply cuts on Monday, the
deadline for it to settle $1.95 billion in unpaid bills. This could
disrupt supplies to the European Union, as about half of its sizable
gas imports from Russia flow via Ukraine.
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
Russian 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.
(Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk and Natalia Zinets in Kiev,
Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow and Lesley Wroughton in Washington;
Writing by Timothy Heritage and Alessandra Prentice; Editing by
Kevin Liffey and Dan Grebler)
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