Ukraine’s rebels say they are ready to turn their eastern stronghold of Slovyansk into another “Stalingrad” if it is stormed by government troops that regard them as Russian-backed terrorists. “We will defend ourselves to our last drop of blood. We are ready to repeat Stalingrad,” said the militants’ spokeswoman, Stella Khorosheva, after Ukrainian special forces killed several rebels at checkpoints near Slovyansk yesterday.
More than 1.5 million Soviet and German soldiers died in the 1942-3 battle, and such rhetoric is increasingly common among anti-government activists in Ukraine with the approach of the traditional May 9th Victory Day celebration of the Red Army’s defeat of the Nazis.
Moscow and the militants say Ukraine’s pro-EU authorities are backed by Russian-hating fascists, who will use violence to subjugate eastern areas of the country that are geographically and culturally close to Russia and predominantly speak Russian.
Church bells rang in Slovyansk yesterday morning to warn of the Ukrainian forces’ first foray into the outskirts of the city, prompting guards manning barricades of old tyres to set them alight and try to make their escape. Not all of them succeeded: officials said five were killed, while the rebels said two of their men died.
'Torturing the country'
"Those separatists, they violated the constitution, they are torturing the country, they violated laws, they do not recognise the authority of police, so the army had to move in and we will finish what we have started, so help me God," said one Ukrainian soldier involved in the operation.
Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, the former Soviet soldier who is Slovyansk’s rebel leader, warned that his men were ready to fight and well equipped with guns, mortars and grenade launchers.
“And that’s not all,” he said. “We have a little secret, a surprise.”
“We will restrain ourselves for now,” he told reporters yesterday. “But let’s see what happens. If they break through into the city, then they break through – and we’ll be waiting for them.”
Armoured personnel carriers rumbled through sunny fields near Slovyansk yesterday, flying the yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flag, while attack helicopters clattered overhead and masked troops brandishing automatic rifles patrolled country roads. It was the most decisive and professional-looking operation yet mounted by Ukraine’s beleaguered forces, which gave up Crimea to Russian troops without a fight.
The soldiers pulled back from at least one checkpoint during the day, however, and it was reclaimed by the rebels. And in another eastern city, Mariupol, anti-government protesters were threatening to retake control of an official building that they were driven from the previous evening.
Ukraine's president, Oleksandr Turchinov, launched the anti-terrorist drive this week after saying militants had "crossed the line" by allegedly torturing and murdering two "patriots".
One was identified as local politician Volodomyr Rybak, who was found drowned and with knife wounds by a river near Slovyansk. He was buried yesterday. The other victim has not yet been identified.
Mr Ponomaryov's rebels last night released US reporter Simon Ostrovsky, who had been detained for several days. Ukrainian journalists are still thought to be held captive in Slovyansk.
“I’m out and safe,” he said on Twitter last night. “Thank you all for your support. Had no idea I had so many good friends.”