DONETSK, Ukraine - Resurgent government forces on Saturday hoisted the Ukrainian flag over pro-Russian rebels' main stronghold after a devastating shelling onslaught levelled much of the city but delivered Kiev its biggest success of the campaign.
The self-proclaimed mayor of Slavyansk confirmed to AFP that insurgents had abandoned the rustbelt city of 120,000. A local resident said by phone that barricades once manned by the camouflage-clad gunmen stood abandoned since the early morning.
Images posted on YouTube showed helmeted troops carrying dozens of grenade launchers out of the barricaded Slavyansk city hall building as the blue-and-yellow national banner streamed under a blazing blue sky.
Kiev's ability to win back Slavyansk - home to one of the country's biggest weapons storage facilities that fell to the insurgents in early April - marks a key turning point in three months of low-scale warfare that has threatened the very survival of the ex-Soviet state.
Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said the withdrawal was led by senior militia commander Igor Strelkov - alleged by Kiev to be a colonel in Russia's GRU military intelligence unit.
Both Strelkov and Moscow deny any GRU link, despite Western claims that the Kremlin is covertly funding and arming the uprising to destabilise Kiev's new pro-European leaders and retain control over Russian-speaking eastern regions of Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko stormed to victory in a May 25 election thanks to his vow to quickly resolve the country's worst crisis since independence in 1991.
Most analysts think the 48-year-old chocolate baron desperately needed an early battlefield victory to secure the trust of Ukrainians frustrated by their underfunded army's inability to stand up to what they see as Russian aggression.
Poroshenko immediately vowed to press on with his offensive and flush out "terrorists who are entrenching themselves in large cities".
"This is not a full victory and no time for fireworks," the Western-backed leader said in a statement.