As Ukrainian troops retreat, separatists celebrate new offensive

As Ukrainian troops retreat, separatists celebrate new offensive
An armed pro-Russian rebel standing on the road as others drive past near the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on July 5, 2014. Pro-Russian rebels have consolidated their grip in the town of Komsomolske, regaining control of areas either once out of their control or at risk after beating government forces to retreat.

KOMSOMOLSKE, Ukraine - The town of Komsomolske, to the south east of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, has seen two rulers in the last three days.

On Friday, it was in the hands of government forces. By Sunday, it had fallen to the rebels, like many other towns in the region after the separatists launched a lightning offensive.

"We arrived this morning, there was no fight," said a rebel nicknamed "Shatun" (a bear awakened from hibernation).

As AFP entered the town, two Ukrainian vehicles could be seen driving away towards the west, the white flag of surrender flapping from their window.

Fighters were tinkering with abandoned Ukrainian armoured personnel carriers, seemingly looking for things to do.

In this southeastern part of the war-torn region of Donbass, pro-Russian rebels have consolidated their grip, regaining control of areas either once out of their control or at risk.

The rebel stronghold of Donetsk, just north of Komsomolske, was encircled by Ukrainian forces for a month, but now rebels are lifting away the last roadblocks from the south east of the city.

Kiev sees the hand of Moscow behind the sudden reverse in fortunes for the rebels, although Russia denies being involved.

The fighters encountered by AFP in the region this weekend were wearing unmarked fatigues that made it impossible to tell either their battalion, their division or who had sent them.

Some wear a strip of white cloth as armband, although that, too, keeps their identity a mystery.

The Soviet-made T-64 assault tanks seen by AFP near Starobesheve had only one number to mark them out, at the back.

One pro-Russia rebel perched on the side of a tank, however, was decisive that the tanks were not taken from the Ukrainians.

"No, they are ours," he told AFP, before his colleague talked over him, to defer. "Yes, we took them from the Ukrainians," he added, quickly.

The Kiev-led bombardment of the rebel strongholds has dimmed in the last few days, and now it seems the rebels control of the area between Donetsk, the Russian border in the east and the south, and the territory up to the port city of Mariupol on the Azov Sea.

On Sunday, the Ukrainian security spokesman Andriy Lysenko admitted that the "terrorists and Russian military had tightened their grip" on the area.

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