Divisions appear among Ukraine's eastern rebels

By Yuras Karmanau

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, July 10 2014 1:02 p.m. MDT

Updated: Thursday, July 10 2014 1:02 p.m. MDT

An elderly woman comes back to her flat in a building damaged by shelling in Mikolaivka village, near the city of Slovyansk, Donetsk Region, eastern Ukraine Thursday, July 10, 2014. In the past two weeks, Ukrainian government troops have halved the amount of territory held by the rebels. Now they are vowing a blockade of Donetsk. In another sign of deteriorating morale among rebels, several dozen militia fighters in Donetsk abandoned their weapons and fatigues Thursday, telling their superiors they were returning home.

Dmitry Lovetsky, Associated Press

DONETSK, Ukraine — Deep strains emerged Thursday in the ranks of Ukraine's pro-Russia insurgents, as dozens of militiamen turned in their weapons in disgust at Russian inaction and bickering broke out between rebel factions.

In the past two weeks, Ukrainian government troops have halved the amount of territory held by the rebels and grow better equipped and more confident by the day. Once fearful of losing further sections of Ukraine to neighboring Russia, they have shifted their strategy to containing the insurgents, whose pleas to join Russia have been ignored by President Vladimir Putin.

Pushed back into Ukraine's eastern industrial city of Donetsk, the pro-Russia militias appear to be focusing their efforts now on hit-and-run operations, bombing transportation links and bracing for more Ukrainian government troop incursions.

The Ukrainian forces plan to blockade Donetsk and Luhansk — another key rebel stronghold — although they remain unable to fully secure the porous border with Russia, where the insurgency has drawn much of its manpower.

Ukraine says Moscow is arming and supporting the rebels, charges it has denied.

Signs of a rift within the rebellion emerged Thursday after the head of the influential Vostok battalion announced he would not submit to the command of the military leader of the separatist Donetsk People's Republic, Igor Girkin.

Girkin, a Russian better known by his assumed surname Strelkov, has attained hero status among supporters of the insurgency. Ukrainian authorities have identified him as a former Russian military intelligence agent active in taking over Crimea before Russia annexed it in March.

Yet he also has been criticized by some for leading the rebel withdrawal last weekend from the eastern city of Slovyansk, 110 kilometers (70 miles) north of Donetsk, reportedly to protect civilian lives.

Vostok commander Alexander Khodakovsky alluded to that in his remarks Thursday.

"There cannot be a single leader giving orders," he declared. "Because if Strelkov suddenly decides what he wants is — in the interests of protecting the lives of Donetsk citizens and the lives of militiamen — to abandon Donetsk, then we will not follow his orders."

Khodakovsky was speaking in Makiivka, a town just outside Donetsk, where his men have relocated to after a reported falling-out with Strelkov.

The ill-feeling also appears to have been due to disappointment over the rebels' perception that Russia has done too little to help them.

"Strelkov is a military officer of non-local domicile, while we are locals and will not, therefore, allow the people of Donetsk to remain without our support and protection," Khodakovsky said.

Strelkov could go back to Russia whenever he wanted, he noted.

In another sign of deteriorating morale among the rebels, several dozen militia fighters garrisoned in a university dorm in Donetsk abandoned their weapons and fatigues in their rooms Thursday.

"Russia abandoned us. The leadership is bickering. They promise us money but don't pay it. What's the point of fighting?" said 29-year old Oleg, a former miner who served in the Kalmius battalion.

Oleg, who declined to give his surname for fear of being punished for desertion, said he had served in the militia for a month and planned to go home to Makiivka.

Strelkov has admitted facing substantial difficulties enlisting the support of the locals in eastern Ukraine.

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