UK

Is It Curtains For Ukraine's Pro-Russia Rebels? Army Moves In To Re-Take Final Eastern Cities

07/07/2014 16:17 BST | Updated 07/07/2014 16:59 BST

After months of fighting and a handful of dodgy referendums, Ukraine's pro-Russia rebels are preparing a dramatic "last stand" against government forces.

The end to the conflict that has ravaged the country's eastern region is now in sight, as Ukrainian government retook two more eastern cities from pro-Russian rebels, and plan to retake the final two major strongholds within days.

On Sunday, government forces regained control of a key rebel stronghold at Slavyansk and Kramatorsk. Slavyansk had been the town where fighting was fiercest during the struggles in the east, and where several journalists and peacekeepers were kidnapped and held hostage.

Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko ordered the assault on Slavyansk in breach of a unilateral ceasefire, arguing that the rebels had refused to abide by the terms of the truce.

Several thousands have since turned out for an anti-government rally in the regional capital Donetsk, where rebel forces have gone to re-group. Rebels still hold both Donetsk and Luhansk, which voted to become independent republics in two dubious referendums.

Ukrainian security official Mykhaylo Koval told the BBC Luhansk and Donetsk would be besieged until they too surrendered.

"There is a clear strategic plan, which has been approved. These cities will be completely blockaded. These measures will result in the separatists - let us call them bandits - being forced to lay down arms."

So far, Russia has yet to indicate it will intervene to stop the blockade of the cities, which have a combined population of 2.5m. "I'm very disappointed," Fedor Berezin, the rebel forces' deputy defence minister told the Wall Street Journal. "That means it will be a long and bloody war until we all die valiantly on the barricades."

Government agencies have been sending food and water supplies to besieged civilians, handing out dishes of meat, potatoes, and onions and repaired the bomb-battered electricity supply in Slavyansk. Ukrainian flags have replaced Russian flags on government buildings.

"Everything is being done so that people feel that the war has ended and peaceful life returns," Ukraine Defence Minister Valeriy Heletey told reporters at an air base on Sunday, after the city was retaken.

Anton Herashchenko, an adviser to interior minister Arsen Avakov, told journalists on Monday the morale of the rebel fighters was "extremely low".

"They feel abandoned, betrayed, deceived," he said.

But it may take more than food and water to finally win back the hearts of the embattled people. The leader of the rebel forces in Slavyansk, who calls himself Igor Strelkov, has fled to Donetsk and told a TV address that he is preparing a final confrontation.

"We will try not to make the same mistakes we did in the past. We will be able to prepare for the enemy's next attack more thoroughly," news agency RIA-Novosti quoted him as saying. Donetsk, he said, was "much easier to defend than little Slavyansk".

The separatist movement has enjoyed a groundswell of support in Ukraine's Russian-speaking south and east, following the ousting of pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych in February by Kiev protesters. Feeling threatened at the prospect of anti-Russian feeling, Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine, by popular consent.

Several other eastern regions, including Donetsk and Luhansk, also held their own independence referendums and suggested they also wished to join Russia. But although Moscow is widely believed to have channelled arms and fighters into the country, Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken a less direct interventionist position.