Ukraine crisis: Government forces retake Slovyansk from rebels

President Poroshenko announces rare, but significant, success for Kiev in their struggle to quell the rebellion

Separatists who seized Slovyansk, turning the eastern city into a pro-Russian stronghold, have been overwhelmed by a large-scale offensive by government forces.

Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko yesterday said in a statement that government troops took the city of about 100,000 people, which has been the centre of a struggle between Kiev troops and the pro-Russian insurgents, after a night of fighting. It was a rare, but significant, success for Kiev forces in their struggle to quell the rebellion.

Slovyansk has been under the control of the rebels since early April when they seized the city's administrative and police buildings. Andrei Purgin, co-chairman of the separatist-named People's Republic of Donetsk, said the army's campaign had left the city "in ruins".

"Now an operation is going on to neutralise small groups hiding in buildings where peaceful citizens are living," said Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for Ukraine's National Security and Defence Council yesterday.

According to a rebel commander, the insurgents had relocated to the nearby town of Kramatorsk, 12 miles south of Slovyansk. But outside Kramatorsk witnesses described abandoned checkpoints while several hundred rebels, armed and in uniform, drove in minibuses in the direction of Donetsk.

The offensive came after Mr Poroshenko shook up his defence team this week, appointing his third defence minister since the downfall of the former president, Viktor Yanukovych, in February.

The Russian foreign ministry said it was bolstering efforts to deliver medical aid to those in eastern Ukraine, but made no mention of the rebels' defeat in Slovyansk or plans to provide military aid. Rebel leaders have pleaded with the Kremlin for military assistance in the past, and some prominent Russian nationalists have publicly taunted President Vladimir Putin, accusing him of cowardice.

The rebels played down the advances by Ukraine troops. Pavel Gubarev, the self-described governor of the People's Republic of Donetsk, wrote online that the rebels had staged a tactical retreat.