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Ukraine leader Poroshenko orders flag raised in separatist stronghold Slovyansk

Pro-Russian separatists have reportedly left the eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk, which they had controlled since April. This prompted President Petro Poroshenko to order the Ukrainian flag be raised over the city.

Ukrainian officials claimed victory over pro-Russian separatists in the city of Slovyansk on Saturday. According to them, government troops have taken control of the city, which has been a stronghold for the separatists for the past three months.

"This morning, intelligence reported that Girkin [Igor Strelkov, a separatist leader] and a substantial part of the rebels had fled Slovyansk," Ukraine's Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said in a Facebook post, adding that the separatists had gone to a nearby town following sustained fire from Ukrainian security forces.

That information prompted a command from Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko for the armed forces to "raise the government's flag" over the town council offices, according to a statement on Poroshenko's website.

The Ukrainian government's statements were backed up by the separatists, with Andrei Purgin of the Donetsk People's Republic telling the Associated Press news agency the separatists were evacuating, claiming the city had been left "in ruins" by the army's campaign. Those allegations of widespread damage were not confirmed, with a local resident who gave his name as Alexei saying that while there was some damage to buildings in the city center, much of the rest of the city was untouched.

"The fighters have left. The Ukrainian army is not yet in Slavyansk. There are no authorities in the town," the town's self-proclaimed separatist mayor Volodymyr Pavlenko told the AFP news agency.

A Human Rights Watch observer, Tanya Lokshina, tweeted that she had also seen the separatists leaving Slovyansk via the town of Kramatorsk, saying "the city's fallen, everyone's getting out."

The ability of

Ukrainian military forces

to win back Slovyansk, a symbolically important city in the uprising, could signal a turning point in three months of

on-and-off fighting

against the separatists.

Status of talks unclear

Poroshenko had

agreed on Friday to hold talks

with separatist commanders and Russia, with the aim of ending the conflict. The status of those talks, scheduled for Saturday, remained unclear. A contact group including Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has tried to

mediate an end to the conflict.

The interim government in Kyiv and some Western countries allege that Russia has been funding and arming the separatist uprising to destabilize the new pro-European leadership in Ukraine, claims Russia has denied.

The conflict has killed hundreds of Ukrainian military personnel, separatists and civilians, while thousands of people have been displaced.

se/msh (AP, AFP, Reuters)

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