KIEV — With a fierce onslaught of gunfire and mortar shelling, Ukrainian government forces on Saturday chased pro-Russian insurgents from Slovyansk, a long-blockaded rebel stronghold, government officials and separatist leaders said.
As rebels fled the city, the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in a separatist insurrection that has lasted more than three months, the Ukrainian military destroyed a tank, two combat vehicles, and two armored personnel carriers, a spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, Andriy Lysenko, said.
“Run!” the Ukrainian interior minister, Arsen Avakov, wrote in a jubilant Facebook post on the retaking of Solvyansk. “The terrorists are bearing losses, surrendering.”
Local news services in eastern Ukraine reported that insurgents were traveling south from Slovyansk toward the regional capital of Donetsk.
Though it was not yet clear whether the retaking of Slovyansk signaled a decisive blow against the rebels in eastern Ukraine, it showed that Ukrainian forces were finally gaining traction and reasserting state authority, three months after separatists seized control of cities and towns throughout the region, dividing this country of 45 million people.
The Ukrainian advance on Saturday came four days after President Petro Poroshenko ended a cease-fire and ordered the military to resume efforts to crush the rebellion by force.
On Tuesday, the Ukrainian military retook an important checkpoint at a border crossing with Russia, one of several that had been seized by rebels and that the Ukrainian government and its Western allies said were used to allow Russian tanks, weapons, and fighters to cross into the region.
Insurgent leaders confirmed that their fighters had fled under heavy attack by the Ukrainian military, but insisted that they were not giving up. “Our resistance has not been crushed,” Andrei Purgin, an insurgent leader, told the Interfax news service.
He said the rebels had abandoned the city because they were overwhelmed militarily.
“What would you do if you were shelled with mortars and artillery guns and pounded from the air, and you had only three tanks and assault rifles?” asked Purgin, deputy prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, one of two separatist shadow governments in the east. “The Ukrainian security forces, in fact, tried to raze Slovyansk to the ground.”
The head of Ukraine’s national security council, Andriy Parubiy, said the government’s goal was to force fighters out of the city to limit the risk to civilians.
“The terrorists are fleeing in panic, through fields along the roads,” he said in an interview with the Ukrainska Pravda news site. “The fact that the Ukrainian military forced the fighters to flee is positive because it minimizes civilian casualties. We let them go outside the city, and they meet fire at checkpoints.”
Ukrainian officials said that those fleeing included the well-known commander Igor Girkin, who the Ukrainian authorities say worked for the Russian military’s foreign intelligence directorate. In east Ukraine, he identified himself as Colonel Igor Strelkov, which means shooter or gunman.
By midday Saturday, government troops were sweeping through neighborhoods of Slovyansk in search of any remaining fighters, officials said.
Poroshenko, informed of the retaking of the city by the military chief of staff, Viktor Muzhenko, ordered the Ukrainian flag to be raised over the city council building, according to a statement posted on the presidential administration website.
The separatist rebellion is the latest, and bloodiest, chapter in a crisis that began last November after Viktor Yanukovych, then Ukraine’s president, rejected a trade accord with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia. Protesters took to the streets of Kiev, and in February Yanukovych fled from office. A week later, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea.
As the government reported its victory in Slovyansk, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church on Saturday announced the death of Metropolitan Volodymyr, 78, the leader of the church’s Moscow patriarchate, who struggled, amid illness, to be a voice of conciliation in the political turmoil that has divided Ukraine and Russia.
Volodymyr’s death could have broad political implications, setting the stage for a battle between clerics seeking closer ties with the Russian Orthodox Church, which is headquartered in Moscow, and those who want a more independent, distinctly Ukrainian church.
Ukraine is a deeply religious country, and the overwhelming majority of the population identifies as Orthodox.
The church itself, however, is split, largely between the Moscow patriarchate, which is beholden to Patriarch Kirill I of the Russian Orthodox Church, who is a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, and the Kiev patriarchate, which Moscow does not recognize.