Ukrainian troops drive rebels out of Mariupol

By David McHugh

Associated Press

Published: Friday, June 13 2014 9:42 a.m. MDT

A local woman prepares to take pictures of a site of a battle between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian fighters in Mariupol, eastern Ukraine, Friday, June 13, 2014. Ukraine’s interior minister says that government troops have attacked pro-Russian separatists in the southern port of Mariupol. Arsen Avakov said Friday that four government troops were wounded as forces retook buildings occupied by the rebels in the center of the town.

Evgeniy Maloletka, Associated Press

MARIUPOL, Ukraine — Ukrainian troops attacked pro-Russia separatists Friday in the southern port of Mariupol, apparently driving them out of buildings they had occupied in the center of the city.

Mariupol is the second-largest city in the eastern Donetsk region that has declared independence from the government in Kiev. The key port sits along the main road leading from Russia to the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in March from Ukraine.

About 100 soldiers emerged triumphant Friday from the previously rebel-occupied buildings, shouting the name of their battalion, Azov, and singing the Ukrainian national anthem. They also destroyed an armored vehicle and a heavy truck used by the separatists, leaving the vehicles scorched and riddled with large-caliber bullet holes.

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said four government troops were wounded in what he called a successful operation. Witnesses said they saw troops capture at least four separatist fighters. There was no immediate word of casualties on the rebel side, and Associated Press journalists at the site were blocked from entering the buildings.

Ukraine and the West have accused Moscow of fomenting the unrest in eastern Ukraine and supporting the separatist fighters. Russia, however, has denied sending troops or weapons to Ukraine and has described the Russian citizens fighting with the separatists as volunteers.

The renewed fighting Friday came as rebel leaders confirmed they now have three tanks.

Government officials say the tanks were part of a column of armored vehicles that crossed the porous border into Ukraine from Russia, but there has been no independent confirmation that they came from Russia.

Denis Pushilin, a leader of the separatist Donetsk People's Republic, told Russian state television Friday that they have the tanks but it was "improper to ask" where they had gotten them.

"They are in Donetsk and are the minimum that we have to defend the city," he said.

Both the U.S. State Department and NATO have said if the tanks did come from Russia, it would be a "serious escalation" of the crisis.

"I am concerned about reports that pro-Russian armed gangs are acquiring heavy weapons from Russia, including Russian tanks," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a statement Friday. "We have seen reports that Russian tanks and other armored vehicles may have crossed the border into eastern Ukraine. If these reports are confirmed, this would mark a serious escalation of the crisis in eastern Ukraine."

Rasmussen urged Russia "to complete the withdrawal of its military forces on the border with Ukraine, to stop the flow of weapons and fighters across the border, and to exercise its influence among armed separatists to lay down their weapons and renounce violence."

There was no immediate response from Russia on Friday, a national holiday.

Pushilin repeated the separatists' call for Russia to send peacekeeping troops into eastern Ukraine. Russia has said this could only be done with U.N. authorization.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who took office on June 7, rallied support for his plan to end the fighting in phone calls Thursday with Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Poroshenko told Merkel he is willing to negotiate, but not with those he calls terrorists. He said he could offer amnesty only to people who don't have "blood on their hands."

According to his spokesman, Svyatoslav Tsegolko, Poroshenko told Putin it was "unacceptable" that tanks had crossed the border. A Kremlin statement said Poroshenko told Putin about his plan for resolving Ukraine's crisis.

McHugh reported from Kiev, Ukraine.

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