Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko—buoyed after retaking the rebel stronghold of Slavyansk—said he plans to quickly seize more territory from pro-Russian separatists and described the recapture as “a turning point” in the fight for control of his country’s east.
Poroshenko’s comments on Sunday came as Russia’s state news agency, quoting Ukrainian officials, said Kiev was planning to launch major offensives in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
On Sunday afternoon, the rebel fighters were converging on Donetsk, a day after they were driven out of their key stronghold.
“My order is now in effect— tighten the ring around the terrorists,” Poroshenko tweeted on Sunday.
“Continue the operation to liberate Donetsk and Luhansk regions,” he said, naming Ukraine’s two major eastern regions which have boiled with separatist rebellion since April.
“This is not full victory. But the clearing out of peo–ple armed to the teeth from Slovyansk has huge symbolic importance. It is the beginning of the turning point in the battle with fighters for the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” Poroshenko said.
The president said hostages held in Slovyansk by the se–paratists had been released and a significant number of weapons had been seized.
But he acknowledged the rebels were re-grouping in the other towns and he was far from euphoric. “There are further tests ahead,” he added.
There were no immediate figures for casualties caused by the government offensive in Slovyansk, launched after Poroshenko refused to renew a unilateral ceasefire and ordered the resumption of a government offensive on June 30.
Under rebel commander Igor Girkin, a Muscovite declared de–fense minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Slo–vyansk had put up some of the fiercest resistance to Ukrainian forces, bringing down at least three military helicopters and one Antonov-30 intelligence plane.
The city’s re-capture represents Kiev’s most notable military victory in three months of fighting in which more than 200 Ukrainian troops have been killed as well as hundreds of civilians and rebels.
Rebels move to Donetsk
Meanwhile, Girkin, who also uses the alias, Igor Strelkov, said in an interview on Sunday with the Russian television channel Life News that he had arrived in Donetsk from Slovyansk.
Rebel fighters from Slovyansk and other towns taken over by the Ukrainian army were seen on Sunday milling around central Donetsk, the Agence France-Presse news agency reported.
Donetsk is the provincial capital of a region with a population of about 1 million where the se–paratists have declared inde–pendence in the name of the Donetsk People’s Republic.
“We will continue the combat operations and will try not to make the same mistakes that we made in the past,” said Girkin. Ukrainian authorities identify him as a veteran of the Russian military intelligence agency.