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Ukrainian government forces reclaimed the port city of Mariupol from pro-Russian separatists in heavy fighting on Friday and said they had regained control of a long stretch of the border with Russia.
The advances are significant victories for the pro-European leadership in a military operation to crush the armed separatist rebellion that began in east Ukraine in April and hold the former Soviet republic of 45 million together.
"At 10:34 a.m. (0734 GMT) the Ukrainian flag was raised over City Hall in Mariupol," Interior Minister Arsen Avakov wrote on Facebook, less than six hours after the attack began on the city of 500,000, Ukraine's biggest Azov Sea port.
A ministry aide said the 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.
Mariupol, which has changed hands several times in weeks of conflict, is strategically important because it lies on major roads from the southeastern border with Russia into the rest of Ukraine and steel is exported through the port.
Regaining control of the long and winding frontier is also vital for the government because it accuses Moscow of allowing the rebels to bring tanks, other armoured vehicles and guns across the porous border.
Avakov said the government forces had won back control of a 120-km (75-mile) stretch of the border that had fallen to the rebels, but it is not clear who controls other parts of the about 2,000-km frontier.
The rebels, who have taken over several towns and cities and want east Ukraine to become part of Russia, confirmed five of their fighters were killed in the fighting for Mariupol.
Avakov said National Guard and Interior Ministry units were involved in the battle, as well as special forces.
A Ukrainian defence analyst, Dmytro Tymchuk, said four Ukrainian soldiers had been killed and 31 wounded in fighting in other parts of east Ukraine in the past 24 hours. The death toll is not known but several hundred people have been reported killed in clashes this year in Kiev and the east of the country.
Readout of the Vice President's Calls with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko
The Vice President spoke both yesterday and again today with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko regarding the security situation in eastern Ukraine, where militants coming from Russian territory have taken control of parts of the Russian-Ukrainian border. The Vice President applauded President Poroshenko’s commitment to implementing the peace plan he presented in his inaugural address on June 7th, and underscored that de-escalation depends on Russia’s recognizing President Poroshenko as the legitimate leader of Ukraine, ceasing support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, and stopping the provision of arms and materiel across the border. President Poroshenko confirmed his offer that if the separatists disarmed and vacated the buildings they presently occupy, the Ukrainian government was prepared to grant amnesty within Ukraine or safe passage back to Russia. Finally, the Vice President expressed his strong support for the trilateral discussions between Ukraine, Russia and OSCE Special Representative Heidi Tagliavini.
In his first interview as President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko tells TIME that he has no choice but to keep Russia at the negotiating table, as no country is prepared to guarantee his country's security from further attackUkraine’s new President Petro Poroshenko wants to see Russia punished for what he calls the “tragedy” that befell his country this year. But even as Russia has annexed one region of Ukraine and encouraged a violent rebellion in two others, Ukraine does not have the option of breaking off ties with the Kremlin, Poroshenko told TIME in his first interview since taking office. His government has no choice but to seek “an understanding” with Russia, he says, even if for no other reason than the hard reality of Ukraine’s geography.
“Maybe some Ukrainians would like to have Sweden or Canada for a neighbor, but we have Russia,” he said on Monday inside the Presidential Administration Building in Kiev, fidgeting with a set of rosary beads throughout the interview. “So we can’t talk about a firm sense of security without a dialogue and an understanding with Russia.” That is why Poroshenko spent the first full day of his tenure on Sunday in marathon talks with the Russian ambassador to Ukraine, Mikhail Zurabov. Their positions remain miles apart, at best leaving Poroshenko room for “cautious optimism” for restoring civil relations with Russia, he said.
But whatever progress they will make toward a cease-fire between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian rebels in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, Poroshenko has no intention of making nice with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “To be honest, I’m not very interested in what Citizen Putin thinks of my state,” he said. If the Russian leader doubts Ukraine’s right to exist within its current borders, the best way to convince him otherwise is to build a powerful army and a thriving economy, Poroshenko said. “No one would allow himself to doubt the existence of small countries like Singapore,” the Ukrainian President said, “because when a country is strong, effective, comfortable, monolithic, such doubts would never enter anyone’s minds.”
Pro-Russian separatists attacked Ukrainian military checkpoints and other strategic points in eastern Ukraine overnight but they were beaten off with only minor casualties on the Ukrainian side, a government forces spokesman said on Tuesday.
In a three-hour battle near the airport of Kramatorsk, rebels attacked the army with mortars but government forces returned fire, destroying their position and killing 40 "mercenaries", said the spokesman, Vladyslav Seleznyov.
This figure could not be independently confirmed and there was no immediate word from the side of the separatists.
In Slaviansk, just north of Kramatorsk, two Ukrainian soldiers were wounded when rebels, who control the city, attacked an army position on the perimeter using grenade-launchers.
In Luhansk, on the border with Russia, separatist fighters opened fire on the airport and nearby Ukrainian army positions.
"The attack of the (separatist) fighters was repelled by special force units. There are no losses on the Ukrainian side," said Seleznyov.
Separatist rebellions broke out in Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine in April after street protests in the capital Kiev toppled a Moscow-backed president. Scores of separatists, members of government forces and civilians have been killed.
Kiev has accused Moscow of fomenting the unrest and allowing mercenaries from Russia to cross the long border with consignments of arms to support the rebels. Moscow denies this.
Ukrainian border guards stand grim-faced and nervous at the remote Marynivka checkpoint on the frontier with Russia, fearing an attack by pro-Moscow separatists at any time.
Last week they fought off an assault by up to 150 rebels seeking control over supply routes from Russia to bring in arms and other war materials, forcing them to abandon two armored personnel carriers strafed with machinegun fire.
A weary border guard, wearing a camouflage T-shirt and a cap with a Ukrainian national emblem, said he feared the worst if the authorities in Kiev did not send help.
"They told us to expect reinforcements. We're hoping for them soon," said the guard, who gave his name as Vadim. "They (the separatist rebels) drove around us in circles shooting for about four or five hours."
An unexploded rocket-propelled grenade lay in the long grass 200 meters (yards) from the border post.
Not all border guards have put up such a fight. Outgunned and outnumbered, they have fled one post after another in the week since the rebels took the border guards' headquarters in Luhansk, the region's main city.
In an angry letter to the country's defense minister, frustrated Luhansk border guards wrote: "We, including eight among us wounded by bullets and grenades ... sincerely waited for help from you but it never came."
Some of the rebel fighters, who hope to join territory in Russian-speaking east Ukraine with Russia, say they are already able to navigate the border with impunity.
"We need guns, we need supplies from Russia," said a tired-looking rebel, smoking pungent cigarettes in a cafe in the city of Donetsk. He asked not to be identified, fearing punishment if his side loses the conflict.
Ukraine's inability to police parts of its own border underscores the military weaknesses President Petro Poroshenko has to deal with as he tries to end the insurrection that began after his Moscow-leaning predecessor was toppled in February.
His promise to regain Crimea, annexed by Russia in March, also puts him at loggerheads with President Vladimir Putin, complicating dealings with Moscow to plug the power vacuum at the border where Kiev says Russia gives rebels a green light.
"The border can't be closed in a day, and without that the anti-terrorist operation (against the separatists) could continue endlessly," Ukrainian military expert Dmitry Tymchuk wrote on his Facebook page.
Ukraine's new president Petro Poroshenko said his country would never give up Crimea and would not compromise on its course towards closer ties with Europe, spelling out a combative and defiant message to Russia in his inaugural speech on Saturday.
The 48-year-old billionaire took the oath of office before parliament, buoyed by Western support but facing an immediate crisis in relations with Russia as a separatist uprising seethes in the east of his country.
Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in March, weeks after street protests ousted Poroshenko's pro-Moscow predecessor, Viktor Yanukovich, in a move that has provoked the deepest crisis in relations with the West since the Cold War.
"Citizens of Ukraine will never enjoy the beauty of peace unless we settle our relations with Russia. Russia occupied Crimea, which was, is, and will be Ukrainian soil," Poroshenko said in a speech that drew a standing ovation.
He had told this to Russia's Vladimir Putin when the two met on Friday at a World War Two anniversary ceremony in France, he said.
Poroshenko, who earned his fortune as a confectionery entrepreneur and is known locally as the "Chocolate King", said he intended very soon to sign the economic part of an association agreement with the European Union, as a first step towards full membership.
This idea is anathema to Moscow, which wants to keep Ukraine in its own post-Soviet sphere of influence.
His voice swelling with emotion, Poroshenko stressed the need for a united Ukraine and the importance of ending the conflict that threatens to further split the country of 45 million people. He said it would not become a looser federalized state, as advocated by Russia.
"There can be no trade-off about Crimea and about the European choice and about the governmental system. All other things can be negotiated and discussed at the negotiation table. Any attempts at internal or external enslavement of Ukraine will meet with resolute resistance," Poroshenko said.
Poroshenko, Ukraine's fifth president since independence, won a landslide election on May 25 after promising to bridge the east-west divide that has split the country and thrust it into a battle for its survival.
Ukrainians hope the election of Poroshenko, who is married with four children, will bring an end to the most tumultuous period in their post-Soviet history.
More than 100 people were shot dead by police in Kiev by police in the street protests that eventually brought Yanukovich down and in the east, scores of people, including separatist fighters and government forces have been killed in fighting since April.
The uprising in the east is not the only challenge facing Poroshenko, who inherits a country on the verge of bankruptcy, still dependent on Russia for natural gas and rated by watchdogs as one of the most corrupt and ill-governed states in Europe.