Ukraine's new defense minister said Tuesday that peace talks will occur only after the pro-Russia rebels holed up in the eastern cities of Donetsk and Luhansk completely disarm.
"There will be no more unilateral cease-fire," Defense Minister Valery Heletey said in a statement posted on the ministry website, reflecting the emboldened posture of Ukraine's military since its troops managed to recover a handful of important rebel strongholds in recent days.
While a fierce showdown appeared in the offing, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said his troops would refrain from using heavy artillery or airstrikes in Donetsk, a city of 1 million residents where the gunmen fighting to join Russia occupy the 10-story regional government headquarters and other buildings in the city center.
Since government forces succeeded in recent days to drive the militants from Slovyansk, Kramatorsk and other towns in the Donetsk region that they held for three months, many of the gunmen have fled to central Donetsk to regroup and collaborate with the putative rebel government. Alexander Borodai, one of the self-styled leaders of the proclaimed People's Republic of Donetsk, told Russian media during a visit to Moscow on Tuesday that the separatists were not taking refuge in Donetsk but, rather, planning a counteroffensive.
"We're not preparing ourselves for a siege. We are preparing ourselves for action," Borodai was quoted as saying by the online newspaper Gazeta.ru.
Igor Strelkov, the Russian special forces veteran who commanded the separatist operations in Slovyansk, cast the rebels' retreat over the weekend as a strategic move to spare the civilian population from further hazard. Dozens of fighters as well as civilians were killed around the city in the heavy artillery exchanges between rebels and government forces.
"The [Ukrainian] National Guard are getting revenge for their numerous losses on the locals," Strelkov was quoted as saying by Russian website LifeNews and by state-controlled Russia Today television.
Although Strelkov and other Russian mercenaries have made no secret of their involvement in the fighting in eastern Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has steadfastly denied Kiev's accusations that Russia is supporting the separatist rebellion that has left nearly 500 dead since April.
Poroshenko, who has been in office a month, had proclaimed a unilateral cease-fire on June 20 but ended it last week, saying that rebel forces had violated the truce more than 100 times. At least 47 Ukrainian troops died in attacks during the 10 days that the government claimed to be halting its offensive, although the separatists accused the Kiev forces of also violating the cease-fire.
As rebels retreated from the towns recovered by government forces over the past four days, bridges and other transportation infrastructure have been destroyed on the routes into Donetsk, presumably to frustrate the advance of government troops. On Tuesday, a blast damaged a railroad line near Horlivka, between Slovyansk and Donetsk, the online Ukrainian news site Ostrov reported.
Men in the camouflage garb favored by the pro-Russia gunmen were seen running from the scene of the latest attack on infrastructure, the Associated Press said it was told by witnesses. The Interfax-Ukraine news agency said five men caught with a trunkload of explosives and railway maps had been detained on suspicion of planning to blow up another rail line.
Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's wealthiest man and owner of vast industrial holdings in the east, had appealed this week for both sides to cease attacks that damage transport, production, mining and other important economic activities in the region. The mayor of Donetsk, Oleksandr Lukyanchenko, added his voice Tuesday to those beseeching the combatants to prevent further damage to the local economy.
"The president promised they would not use the methods they had applied in Slovyansk, Kramatorsk and Luhansk in the case of Donetsk," Lukyanchenko said at a news conference, Interfax-Ukraine reported.
Also on Tuesday, Poroshenko named a new commander of the "anti-terrorist operation" aimed at regaining control of the towns and cities occupied by the separatists. Lt. Gen. Vasyl Grytsak, 53, is a 20-year veteran of the security service, the government said in announcing the appointment.