The fighting in Ukraine reached a new level of intensity as the Ukrainian army attempted to decisively take control of the breakaway eastern provinces under the control of the pro-Russian separatists.
Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on Facebook that a large number of insurgents had left the town of Slovyansk, which has been a focal point for much of the fighting in recent weeks, but he admitted that some fighters were still in the town. Two smaller towns are also reported to have been retaken by government troops.
The rebels under the command of a Russian citizen that goes by the pseudonym Igor Strelkov fled under mortar fire from the Ukrainian army, losing a tank and four other armoured vehicles, according to a statement on the presidential website.
Russian state broadcaster First Channel said the rebels' headquarters in the regional capital of Donetsk confirmed that the separatist fighters had been forced to retreat. However, the separatist leaders denied reports they had been defeated.
In a symbolic gesture, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ordered the military to hoist the Ukrainian flag over the Slovyansk city council building, a statement from the presidency says. A photo purportedly of the flag fluttering over the city was doing the rounds on social media.
However, reports quickly followed that the rebels that left Slovyansk only to move to Donetsk where fresh fighting broke out. At the time of writing a fierce battle for Donetsk airport was raging, according to reports by the Kyiv Post. Ukrainian forces had launched airstrikes against the rebel positions, according to postings on Twitter by Conflict Reporter, but no other confirmation is available at this time.
Elsewhere, Ukraine's anti-terrorist operation, now nearly three months old, has enjoyed much less success. While government forces have seized control of towns and villages in the far north and south of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, encircling the rebels, they have not been able to shake them from their strongholds, mostly located in cities, the Kyiv Post reports.
Civilian death toll rises
More than 200 civilians have been killed in the last three months, including at least 15 children, in just the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, while more than 200 Ukrainian servicemen have also been killed, the Kyiv Post reports. There are no reliable estimates of how many separatists have been killed, although reports of individual deaths amongst their ranks appear on a daily basis.
The civilians in the region are bearing the brunt of the assault with a stream of YouTube videos showing devastated towns and giving the details of numerous personal tragedies. In one village on July 4 a report emerged, confirmed by both western and Russian media, of a 5-year-old boy who had his leg blown off and subsequently died in hospital, one particular graphic example of similar stories.
Since Poroshenko refused to renew the ceasefire that expired on July 1 the Ukrainian army has moved up heavier weaponry in the hope of quickly bringing the insurrection to an end.
Video appeared on YouTube that reportedly shows Ukrainian forces pounding the city of Slovyansk with Howitzers on July 4, although no independent confirmation was available.
And on July 5 several videos appeared that purportedly shows the Ukrainian army using the Russian-made Grad multiple rocket launchers in Ukraine.
Peace efforts continue
A new round of consultations between Kyiv and their armed opponents in southeastern Ukraine is possible, despite the recent escalation of hostilities in the Donbass region of east Ukraine, but these consultations can be held only through mediators, Andrei Purgin, the first vice prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DPR), told Interfax-Ukraine on July 5.
Russia's Foreign Ministry announced on July 5 that it was suspending the agreed return of Ukrainian military assets from the Crimea to Kyiv because of the rising number of civilians deaths.
The western press has also begun to report more on the human tragedy occurring in the conflict zone, with the Daily Mail going as far as running an article on July 5 drawing a parallel with Hitler's withdrawal from Ukraine in WWII and the current operation there now. "A sign of where Ukrainian conflict could lead? Victims of mortar attack stand before their flaming home, like a scene from the Eastern Front in the Second World War," the paper said in a banner headline.
Certainly, Ukraine's western allies are uncomfortable with the increasingly dramatic reports, pictures and video coming out of the region of human suffering. "Ukraine is under enormous pressure from Europe and especially Germany to announce a ceasefire. This is very difficult to deal with," Dmitry Tymchuk, head of the Centre for Military and Political Research, said on Twitter. (Read his blog on the development here)
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, following a meeting with his French counterpart Laurent Fabius, warned that unless truce talks resume, the country could face "an explosion of violence."
Poroshenko, who appointed a new defence minister, Valeriy Geletey on July 4, remains defiant though. “They chose war, so we will respond to it appropriately,” Poroshenko said following a meeting July 4 with Geletey and Stepan Poltorak, commander of the National Guard.
But Poroshenko also said at the meeting that a new round of peace talks with Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) could start as early as July 5, though at the time of writing the president had not added anything on these plans.
Poroshenko has added several conditions that have to be met before any peace talks can be held, including a guarantee it will be honoured by the separatists. During his previous unilateral ceasefire, the separatists continued to fire on Ukrainian positions, while the Ukrainians were under orders not to shoot unless they were fired upon, which cause resentment amongst the rank and file. "There won't be another unilateral ceasefire," Poroshenko said on July 4.
The main fear is that Russia could use the pretext of a full-scale military operation by Kyiv in the east as a pretext to launch its own formal military operation to "protect Russian-speakers". After withdrawing its forces from the Ukrainian border, reports say some Russian 40,000 troops have been moved back to the border regions in the last few days.
Moscow has focused on the rising civilian death toll and the Russian Foreign Ministry denounced the intensified campaign. The reliance on the armed forces and preference for “ultimatums and ever new demands” by the authorities in Kyiv contradict an agreement reached in four-way talks between Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France the day before the ceasefire expired.
The Russian Foreign Ministry is becoming frustrated with Kyiv's decision to pursue the military option, according to bne sources in Moscow. The Kremlin has already conceded its willingness to allow the OSCE to monitor the border and once again rejected the "tired and unsubstantiated" accusations that is was arming the insurgents on July 5.
To drum in the message, the Foreign Ministry retweeted the text of the declaration following the four-way talks on June 30, where the four foreign ministers stressed "the necessity of a sustainable ceasefire, to be agreed upon swiftly and to be observed by all concerned, thus putting an end to violence in Eastern Ukraine."
"Ministers welcome Russia's readiness to grant Ukrainian border guards access to Russian territory in order to participate in the control of border crossings at the checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk while the mutually agreed cease-fire is in place. This shall be done in close collaboration between Russian and Ukrainian border authorities and pending the return of the Ukrainian checkpoints Izvarino and Krasnopartizansk to Ukrainian government control," the statement says.
The initiative was welcomed by some in Europe as an opening that could be used to bring the crisis to an end. "We should explore on the substance the Russian proposal for a joint Russian-Ukrainian monitoring at the check points on the common borders, and the idea to deploy OSCE observers, eventually together Ukrainian observers at the check points," said Franco Frattini, former Italian foreign minister and president of the Italian Society for the International Organizations in a press release.
However, Tim Ash, head of research at Standard Bank, speculated on July 4 that Russia's concessions were "too little, too late" for Poroshenko, who is under pressure in Kyiv to tough it out, "otherwise he will look weak."
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