Scorched remains of military vehicles after battle Friday between Ukraine government troops and separatists in Mariupol.
KIEV, Ukraine — Government claimed big victories in its fight against pro-Russia separatists in the country’s restive southeast on Friday, saying its forces had retaken a strategic industrial port city in an offensive launched at dawn.
As the sun rose over Mariupol, a city of some 450,000 on the Azov Sea, Ukrainian government forces began a new “active phase” of its “anti-terrorist operation,” now in its second month, to wrest it from the grip of armed insurgents, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov wrote on Facebook.
“All key terrorist strongholds are being brought under control,” he said, adding that troops had destroyed several sniper posts, neutralized two explosive devices and detained 11 “terrorists.” Avakov said there was a "high" loss of life among the separatists, but no deaths among Ukrainian soldiers.
In a separate statement, the National Guard said four Ukrainian servicemen had been wounded during the operation. This video shows the Ukrainian military in action Friday in Mariupol:
The government said its forces arrested more than 30 pro-Russian insurgents and seized an array of weapons and ammunition during the military operation.
Since the beginning of Ukraine’s “anti-terrorist operation” in April, 66 servicemen have been killed.
Ukrainian forces proclaimed victory by hoisting the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine over the separatists’ former headquarters in the cityUkrainian forces proclaimed victory by hoisting the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine over the separatists’ former headquarters in the city, Avakov said.
Immediately following the operation, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko instructed the Head of Donetsk Regional State Administration Serhiy Taruta to temporarily move the regional government office to Mariupol.
“Thanks to the heroism of Ukrainian military, the situation in Mariupol is stabilized,” Poroshenko’s press service quoted him as saying. “I consider it appropriate to move the work of Donetsk Regional State Administration.”
The operation comes a day after Ukrainian authorities reported that three tanks and several other military vehicles had clanked across the border from Russia through posts seized in recent weeks by separatist gunmen.
Ukrainian officials, including Avakov, have accused the Russian government of supporting the separatists by not securing the border between the two countries, allowing fighters and weapons to easily pass through.
Locals posted photographs and videos to social media on Thursday, showing the tanks and military vehicles trundling through the eastern cities of Torez and Makiivka en route to Donetsk, home to about 1 million people and the epicenter of the separatist movement.
Several reports said the tanks are Russian T-72s, but Konstantin Mashovets, a former Ukrainian Defense Ministry official who now works as a military analyst for the Kiev-based Center for Military and Political Studies, said the tanks are Ukrainian T-64s, not T-72s, as had been speculated, and that they had likely been seized by Russian forces in Crimea before making their way into mainland Ukraine.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said late Friday that the convoy included "three T-64 tanks, several BM-21 or Grad multiple rocket launchers and other military vehicles." She added: "We are confident that these tanks came from Russia."
Anton Heraschenko, an advisor to Avakov, the interior minister, confirmed at a briefing in Kiev on Friday that the tanks were once in the possession of Ukraine’s armed forces in Crimea. He said the tanks had been transferred by sea to Russia before crossing the border into Ukraine.
Heraschenko warned that those and other armored vehicles that had crossed the border would soon be destroyed by airstrikes.
“We recommend leaving these machines, because they will be destroyed from the air in the near future,”“We recommend leaving these machines, because they will be destroyed from the air in the near future,” he said.
In a bold declaration, Heraschenko also promised that by Saturday, Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia would be fully under the control of the country’s armed forces, and “the roads leading to it will be exposed to fire.”
He warned that “there will be the same with the town of Snizhne, if it becomes a center of terrorism, as with Mariupol,” referring to Friday morning’s military operation.
Ukrainian officials had previously tried to negotiate a ceasefire with separatist leaders, but to no avail.
Separatist leader Denis Pushilin said Friday morning that the talks had been held in vain.
“We held ceasefire negotiations with Arsen Avakov last Sunday," Pushilin told the Interfax-Ukraine news agency. "We agreed to cease fire and coordinated that issue."
"We were supposed to discuss the opening of a humanitarian corridor in Sloviansk after that,” he added, referring the the separatist stronghold that has been the site of the deadliest fighting.
Dozens on both sides have been killed there during exchanges of mortar and rocket fire. Using anti-aircraft weapons, insurgents have shot down several Ukrainian military helicopters and one plane in the past two months. Several civilians, including two children, were killed amid the clashes.
“Arsen Avakov sent me a text message to confirm the ceasefire order and on that very night the town of Sloviansk was put under intensive heavy gun fire," Pushilin said. "They never opened the humanitarian corridor. The National Guard was firing on buses of departing civilians.”
Responding to Pushilin’s remarks, Avakov on Friday blamed the actions of the separatist leader’s armed militias for the failure to reach a ceasefire.
“Indeed, Pushilin asked me for the [humanitarian] corridor. Indeed, after the appeal was made we suspended all operations at night to coordinate a procedure of the departure of civilians. But militants attacked our units in Artemivsk, attacked our roadblocks at night,” Avakov told Interfax-Ukraine.
“It was nothing but a conversation, which showed we should hardly discuss anything with the self-proclaimed puppet leaders,” the interior minister added.