SLOVYANSK, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian troops forced pro-Russian insurgents out of a key stronghold in the country's embattled east on Saturday, a significant success that suggested the government may finally be making gains in a months-long battle against a spreading separatist insurgency.
As rebels fled from Slovyansk, vowing to regroup elsewhere and fight on, President Petro Poroshenko hailed the recapture of the city as "the start of a turning point" in a battle that has claimed more than 400 lives since April.
After a night of heavy fighting that saw heavy artillery fire from Ukraine's troops, government soldiers were in full control of rebel headquarters in Slovyansk, a city of about 100,000 that has been a center of the fighting between Kiev's troops and the pro-Russian insurgents.
Soldiers raised the Ukrainian flag over the city council building, while troops carried stockpiles of weapons out of the city's administrative and police buildings, which have been under rebel control since early April.
"It's not a total victory. But the purging of Slovyansk of these bands, made up of people armed to the teeth, has incredible symbolic importance," Poroshenko said in a statement posted on his official website.
Artillery fire on rebel forces began late on Friday and lasted into the night. On Saturday, fighting could still be heard on the northern outskirts of the city.
Ukraine's newly appointed Minister of Defense, Valery Heletey, was milling around with troops in the city center. He said that three planes with food and other supplies will soon arrive in Slovyansk.
A spokesman for the National Security and Defense Council said earlier that mopping-up operations were continuing.
"Slovyansk is under siege. Now an operation is going on to neutralize small groups hiding in buildings where peaceful citizens are living," Andriy Lysenko told journalists in Kiev.
Andrei Purgin of the separatist Donetsk People's Republic told The Associated Press that rebels were evacuating, but claimed the army's campaign had left the city "in ruins."
The capture of Slovyansk represented the government's biggest victory since it abandoned a shaky cease-fire this week and launched an offensive against the separatists. Until now, the Ukrainian army had often appeared feckless in the months-long campaign against the rebels. On Thursday Poroshenko shook up his defense team, appointing Ukraine's third defense minister since the former president was ousted in February.
It was not yet clear whether the latest advance has permanently crippled the rebels, many of whom are relocating to other cities.
In the city of Donetsk, streets were deserted on Saturday as local officials urged people to stay at home. They said a battle was ongoing near the Donetsk city airport, but did not provide details.
"Militants from Slovyansk and Kramatorsk have arrived in Donetsk," said Maxim Rovinsky, spokesman for the city council.
Purgin claimed 150 fighters injured in Slovyansk were in Donetsk for treatment.
"More than a hundred militiamen have been killed in the last three days," said Viktor, a 35-year-old Slovyansk native who had a shrapnel wound in his leg. "The mood is very bad. It seems that we've lost this war. And Russia isn't in a hurry to help."
Alexei, a driver and local Slovyansk resident who would not give his last name for fear of reprisal, told the AP by phone that he heard bombing throughout the night. When the bombing stopped in the early morning, he left his house and saw that all the rebel checkpoints were abandoned. He said there was some damage to buildings in the center of the city, but said much of the rest of the city had been left untouched.
A rebel commander who would only give his nom de guerre as Pinochet told the AP that rebels had relocated to the nearby town of Kramatorsk, 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Slovyansk. But outside Kramatorsk, an AP reporter saw an abandoned checkpoint and several hundred rebels, armed and in uniform, driving in minibuses in the direction of Donetsk.
Some rebels played down the significance of Ukraine's advances. Pavel Gubarev, the self-described governor of the Donetsk People's Republic, wrote online that the rebels had staged a tactical retreat.
"Kutuzov also retreated, as that was the plan," he wrote, referring to the 19th century general Mikhail Kutuzov who is credited with defeating Napoleon's forces in Russia. "In general, Russians only retreat before a decisively victorious battle."
Others in the rebels' ranks pleaded publicly with Russia to assist the rebels in their cause. In a video posted online late on Friday, Igor Girkin, the self-described "commander in chief of the Donetsk People's Republic," said his men had "lost the will to fight."
"They want to live in Russia," said Girkin, also known by his nom de guerre, Igor Strelkov. "But when they tried to assert this right, Russia doesn't want to help." He said he believed the troops had only "two or three weeks" before they were defeated if Russia did not step in.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said it was bolstering efforts to deliver medical aid to those in eastern Ukraine, but made no mention of the rebels' defeat in Slovyansk or plans to provide military aid.
Rebel leaders have pleaded with the Kremlin for military assistance in the past, and some prominent Russian nationalists have publicly taunted Putin, accusing him of cowardice. Such criticism could resonate with the broader Russian public, which has been heavily influenced by Russian state television's characterization of the Kiev government as a "fascist junta" that is killing Russian-speakers.
Poroshenko said Friday he was ready to conduct another round of talks between representatives from Ukraine, Russia and the rebels. But with the rebels reeling from their attack Saturday, it was unclear whether negotiations could take place.
"That possibility still exists," said Purgin. "We don't exclude that the talks could happen in Minsk, because the situation in Donetsk has escalated. Different options are now under discussion."
Balint Szlanko in Donetsk, Ukraine and Laura Mills in Moscow contributed reporting.