DONETSK, Ukraine — Ukraine’s government took an increasingly aggressive stance Tuesday toward the pro-Russia separatists, vowing to expunge them from their reduced area of control and imposing new conditions before peace talks can restart.
But as the military moves to encircle the rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine, the government also said it would stop using the air and artillery strikes that drove the rebels from other towns so as to avoid terrorizing civilians.
Ukraine has displayed growing confidence in recent days after driving the insurgents from Slovyansk, a city that had been the heart of the armed resistance since mid-April. Security officials said Tuesday the area held by the rebels has now been reduced by half.
This apparent rout has forced hundreds of militants to regroup in Donetsk, the regional capital, where they occupy government buildings and move freely around the city.
Andrei Purgin, deputy prime minister of the self-proclaimed independent Donetsk People’s Republic, said the rebels have an estimated 15,000 fighters and are focusing their efforts on defending Donetsk, a major industrial hub of 1 million.
“We are creating one DPR fist that is ready to fight and repel the Ukrainian army,” Purgin told The Associated Press.
He said his forces control all of Donetsk, where the normally busy streets were largely vacant but for groups of automatic rifle-toting rebels on patrol.
“After Slovyansk we are gathering strength and resting. In Donetsk, we feel at home, and a home must be defended and protected,” said one 27-year-old rebel fighter, who gave his name only as Dmitry for fear of retaliation. He was patrolling a central district along with seven other militia members.
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