Ukrainian government forces say they have recaptured Slovyansk, which for three months was the stronghold of pro-Russian separatists. Fleeing rebels have vowed to regroup in other restive cities of eastern Ukraine.
The Kyiv government's blue and yellow flag was raised over Slovyansk on orders of President Petro Poroshenko on Saturday. Earlier this week, he refused to extend a ceasefire for conflict-torn eastern Ukraine but accepted mediated talks with rebel commanders.
Local residents said separatists had abandoned barricades in the city of 120,000 early Saturday. A convoy of 20 vehicles filled with rebels was sighted at Kramatorsk, 20 kilometers (12 miles) to the south.
In Slovyansk, news agency correspondents said Ukrainian troops patrolled the city center under the command of Ukraine's newly appointed defense minister Valery Heletey. Fighting could still be heard on the city's northern outskirts.
Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said rebels had suffered losses and were "surrendering."
Slovyansk Mayor Vladimir Pavlenko attributed the rebels' departure to days of shelling and airstrikes by forces commanded by Kyiv, according to the Interfax news agency.
Extent of damage unclear
Andrei Purgin of the separatist Donetsk People's Republic told the Associated Press (AP) that the army's campaign had left Slovyansk "in ruins." AP quoted a resident, however, as saying much of the rest of the city was untouched.
It quoted another Slovyansk resident, who had been wounded, as saying that "more than 100 militiamen had been killed over the past three days. The mood is very bad. It seems that we've lost this war. And Russia isn't in a hurry to help," the source said.
Reuters reported that the rebels in Slovyansk had been outnumbered by 50 to one by Ukrainian government forces.
Russia holding back?
In an online video posted Friday, Igor Girkin - the self-described commander in chief of the Donetsk People's Republic - said Russia "doesn't want to help." Girkin is also known by his nom de guerre Igor Strelkov.
He told the pro-Kremlin LifeNews channel on Friday that his units would be "destroyed" within "two weeks at the latest" unless Russia stepped in.
OSCE-mediated talks unclear
On Friday, President Poroshenko had said he was ready to conduct another round of talks between representatives from Ukraine, Russia and the rebels, alongside mediators of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Those talks were arranged on Wednesday in Berlin during four-way consultations hosted by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
But with the rebels departing Slovyansk on Saturday, it was unclear when or whether those negotiations would begin.
Militants arrive in Donetsk city
Donetsk city council spokesman Maxim Rovinsky said militants had been arriving from Slovyansk. The streets of Donetsk were reportedly deserted on Saturday.
Pro-Russian separatist revolts broke out in eastern Ukraine in April against the new government formed in Kyiv after the ouster of the Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovych.
He had rejected a landmark political and trade deal with the European Union. The association agreement was subsequently signed by Poroshenko during a Brussels summit on June 27.
ipj/slk (AP, Reuters, AFP, dpa)
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