Pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine rebels have pulled back to the main city of Donetsk, abandoning several strongholds in the Donetsk region to government forces.
Separatists abandoned the cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, as well as some smaller towns, in the north of Donetsk region.
However, they have vowed to continue the fight from Donetsk city, describing the withdrawal as a tactical retreat.
Ukrainian forces launched an offensive this week after a truce broke down.
Ukrainian rebels abandoned several strongholds in the Donetsk region to government forces
The government said in a statement that the rebels had fled after mortar shelling from government forces.
Ukraine’s newly-elected President Petro Poroshenko said the breakthrough was “the beginning of the turning point in the fight against militants”.
“This is not complete victory. But the cleansing of Sloviansk from gangs who are armed to the teeth is of huge symbolic importance,” he said in a statement.
Some rebels were initially quoted as saying they were heading to the nearby city of Kramatorsk.
It later emerged that the pro-Russian fighters had also abandoned their posts there, and were apparently heading south to the regional capital.
Alexander Borodai, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), said the rebels had abandoned the entire “northern sector”.
The pro-Russian authorities in Donetsk city said rebel fighters had begun to arrive from the north, and urged residents to stay in their homes.
Rebel leaders were quoted as saying the decision to abandon Sloviansk was taken by Igor Strelkov, the military commander of the DPR.
Igor Strelkov, whose real name is Igor Girkin, had pleaded for Russian intervention on Friday saying his men had lost the will to fight.
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Ukraine’s forces and pro-Russian militants in the east have agreed to extend their week-long ceasefire by 72 hours.
President Petro Poroshenko is hoping for progress on his peace plan.
The announcement came hours after Petro Poroshenko had signed a landmark EU trade pact – the issue that has been the trigger of the recent crisis.
The deadline for the ceasefire to expire was Friday at 22:00.
Separatists in the east held talks on Friday with mediators, including Ukraine’s former President Leonid Kuchma, Moscow’s ambassador in Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
Ukraine’s forces and pro-Russian militants in the east have agreed to extend their week-long ceasefire by 72 hours (photo AP)
The leader of the self-declared “Donetsk People’s Republic” in the east, Alexander Borodai, said the new truce would be observed until June 30.
Petro Poroshenko met officials to discuss the truce after returning from Brussels.
A statement was later posted on the Ukrainian presidential website confirming the truce until 22:00 on Monday.
The statement pointed to a policy statement on Ukraine, issued by the European Council on Friday which set out key steps it expected to happen by Monday.
They include the return of three key checkpoints to Ukrainian forces and the “launch of substantial negotiations on the implementation of President Poroshenko’s peace plan”.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier said he would welcome an extension, but not if it were simply an ultimatum for separatists to lay down their arms.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has insisted on a long-term ceasefire to allow for negotiations between the Ukrainian government and separatists, urging Petro Poroshenko to embark on a “path of peace, dialogue and accord”.
Petro Poroshenko set out a 15-point peace plan on 20 June. It involves decentralizing power and holding early local and parliamentary elections.
It also proposes the creation of a six-mile buffer zone on the Ukrainian-Russian border, and a safe corridor for pro-Russian separatists to leave the conflict areas.
Fighting is said to have continued in some areas of eastern Ukraine despite the ceasefire.
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Pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine have announced that they will observe a ceasefire until Friday morning, responding to the Ukrainian forces’ unilateral ceasefire.
The rebel announcement was made in Donetsk by Alexander Borodai, a leader of the self-styled “Donetsk People’s Republic” which is defying Kiev.
On June 20, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced a 15-point peace plan and declared a week-long truce.
Alexander Borodai is known as one of the leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic
Alexander Borodai was speaking after attending preliminary peace talks in Donetsk.
The high-level talks also involved representatives of the other breakaway region – Luhansk – and Viktor Medvedchuk, an opponent of the Kiev authorities who is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russia’s Ambassador Mikhail Zurabov was also there, along with former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, who is seen as a mediator for President Poroshenko. European mediators from the OSCE security organization also participated.
Last week President Putin cautiously welcomed the Kiev ceasefire. The plan involves decentralizing power, holding early elections, and creating a 6-mile buffer zone on the Ukrainian-Russian border.
The rebels say they will not disarm until Ukrainian government troops have left the east. The militants still control key government buildings across Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
“The ceasefire will take effect as announced earlier – until 10:00 on June 27,” Alexander Borodai said, referring to President Poroshenko’s declaration on Friday.
“During that time there will be ceasefire monitoring by Russia and the OSCE.
“We hope that during the ceasefire both sides will manage to reach agreement and start consultations on how to proceed with talks and a peace settlement.”