Ukraine crisis: Mariupol residents protest at Government crackdown on rebels as troops reclaim city

The southern port was controlled by pro-Russian separatists

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The Independent Online

The Ukrainian flag is flying once again over government buildings in the port of Mariupol after troops reclaimed the city in fierce fighting with pro-Russian separatists.

But civilians gathered in the town centre on Friday to protest against the government’s attack on rebels, shouting obscenities at passing Ukrainian soldiers.

The sandbags and concrete blocks of roadblocks once manned by insurgents were seen riddled with bullet holes and an armoured personnel carrier bearing rebel insignia smouldered as police cordoned off the streets.

Ukraine’s Interior Minister, Arsen Avakov, wrote on Facebook that the Ukrainian flag was raised over the city hall in Mariupol at 10.34am local time.

It was less than six hours after the attack began on the city of 500,000 people, Ukraine's biggest Azov Sea port.

A ministry aide said 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.

Protesting against the Ukrainian army’s actions, Andrei Nikodimovich, 52, said: “The government brought everything here, including a cannon...people were not allowed to come and witness how the government was shooting its own citizens.”

Mariupol, which has changed hands several times in weeks of conflict, is situated on strategic roads from the Russian border into the rest of Ukraine and steel is exported through the port.

Mr Avakov said government troops had won back control of a 75-mile stretch of the Russian border that had fallen to the rebels.

On Friday a separatist leader, Denis Pushilin, said he was potentially open to talks with the Ukrainian government provided there were mediators present, including Russia.

“If an international organisation were also involved that would be a plus too,” he said in an interview on Russian television.

Political ties have also been strained by the appearance of several tanks in east Ukraine.

Mr Avakov accused Russia on Thursday of allowing the rebels to bring them across the border and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who took office less than a week ago, told Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone that the situation was “unacceptable.”

Russia has continually denied sending troops or weapons to Ukraine and Mr Putin has supported a diplomatic solution to the crisis in public statements, as well as meeting Mr Poroshenko during the D-Day anniversary commemorations.

Additional reporting by Reuters