Ukraine takes aggressive stance toward separatists

Ukraine’s government took an increasingly aggressive stance Tuesday toward the pro-Russia separatists, vowing to expunge them from their reduced area of control and imposing new conditions before peace talks can restart.

But as the military moves to encircle the rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine, the government also said it would stop using the air and artillery strikes that drove the rebels from other towns so as to avoid terrorizing civilians.

Ukraine has displayed growing confidence in recent days after driving the insurgents from Slovyansk, a city that had been the heart of the armed resistance since mid-April. Security officials said Tuesday the area held by the rebels has now been reduced by half.

This apparent rout has forced hundreds of militants to regroup in Donetsk, the regional capital, where they occupy government buildings and move freely around the city.

Andrei Purgin, deputy prime minister of the self-proclaimed independent Donetsk People’s Republic, said the rebels have an estimated 15,000 fighters and are focusing their efforts on defending Donetsk, a major industrial hub of 1 million.

“We are creating one DPR fist that is ready to fight and repel the Ukrainian army,” Purgin said.

He said his forces control all of Donetsk, where the normally busy streets were largely vacant except for groups of automatic rifle-toting rebels on patrol.

“After Slovyansk, we are gathering strength and resting. In Donetsk, we feel at home, and a home must be defended and protected,” said one 27-year-old rebel fighter, who gave his name only as Dmitry for fear of retaliation. He was patrolling a central district along with seven other militia members.

A major asset still under government control is the Donetsk Airport, the scene of a bloody clash in May that claimed the lives of dozens of insurgents. Purgin vowed that the rebels would soon take “all assets of interest, including the airport.”

Donetsk Mayor Alexander Lukyanchenko, who has refrained from openly taking sides in the conflict, said he was assured by Ukraine’s president that the military will not launch air and artillery strikes on the city.

Those strikes had hit Slovyansk and other rebel-held towns to vocal criticism from Russia, which accused the central government in Kiev of indiscriminately killing civilians.

More than 400 people have died and tens of thousands have fled their homes during the nearly three-month standoff between the rebels and the new government in Kiev, which came to power after the previous Russia-friendly president was ousted in February.

National Security Council spokesman Andrei Lysenko said Tuesday that plans were being drawn up to recapture Donetsk, as well as another insurgent-held city, Luhansk, without the use of artillery or aviation. He said Monday that the military would create cordons around the two cities to try to cut off rebel supply lines.

In Donetsk, tension was high among residents who watched with dismay as Slovyansk, about 65 miles to the north, fell in an increasingly ugly standoff.

“I plan to leave the city as soon as possible,” said Yekaterina Kachan, 47, who said the restaurant where she works was robbed by militia fighters. “They have turned us all into hostages, but I have no intention of digging graves for separatists under the muzzle of a rifle.”

Rebels in Ukraine and nationalists in Russia have called for the Kremlin to protect the insurgents, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has so far made no comment on their defeat in Slovyansk.