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Ukraine’s troops have won back the port city of Mariupol from pro-Russian separatist rebels after heavy fighting.

Interior Minister Arseny Avakov said the security forces had successfully brought separatist strongholds in the city “under control”.

Five pro-Russian rebels were reported killed and at least four government soldiers injured in the city.

Rebels elsewhere in the region have confirmed they now have three tanks.

Ukraine’s troops have won back the port city of Mariupol from pro-Russian separatist rebels after heavy fighting

Ukraine’s troops have won back the port city of Mariupol from pro-Russian separatist rebels after heavy fighting (photo Reuters)

The appearance of the tanks, filmed in various towns in the Donetsk region, sparked a row between Kiev and Moscow, with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko protesting to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

Russia denied Ukrainian allegations that the tanks had entered Ukraine from its territory.

Hundreds of combatants and civilians have been killed since pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk and neighboring Luhansk regions declared independence after holding referendums last month, which were deemed illegal by the government in Kiev.

Arsen Avakov said government forces had raised the national flag over Mariupol’s council building. The port city lies on the Sea of Azov in the south of Donetsk region which has changed hands several time during the conflict.

The operation had begun at 04:50, the interior minister added.

Confirming that four soldiers were injured, Ukraine’s National Guard said on its website that its recently formed Dnepr and Azov “volunteer” units were being used in the operation.

A rebel source told Russia’s Interfax news agency that five fighters had been killed. Several charred rebel armored cars could be seen in the streets after the battle.

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In a recent report, the UN warns over an “alarming deterioration” in human rights in eastern Ukraine, where separatists are fighting security forces.

The UN also found “serious problems” of harassment and persecution of ethnic Tatars in Crimea, the mainly ethnic Russian region Moscow annexed in March.

Russia condemned the report, saying it ignored abuses by Ukraine’s government.

Meanwhile, a third-party initiative to restore law and order in one troubled city, Mariupol, seems to be succeeding.

Violence between separatists and pro-Ukrainian forces has left dozens dead in the east and south this month.

Violence between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces has left dozens dead in the east and south

Violence between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces has left dozens dead in the east and south

Separatists control towns in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where they have been skirmishing with units of the Ukrainian security forces, sent in to reassert government control.

The revolt in the east gained momentum after Russia annexed Ukraine’s mainly ethnic Russian region of Crimea in March.

Moscow acted after the overthrow of Ukraine’s elected pro-Russian President, Viktor Yanukovych, during unrest in the capital Kiev in February, and his replacement with an interim government, backed by Ukrainian nationalists. A new Ukrainian president is due to be elected on May 25.

In another development, former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt has accused EU officials of risking war with Russia by displaying “megalomania” in Ukraine.

Helmut Schmidt, chancellor from 1974 to 1982, told German newspaper Bild: “The danger that the situation gets ever more tense, as it did in August 1914, is growing day by day.”

The UN’s conclusions are contained in a 37-page report, its second monthly assessment of the situation.

UN human rights chief Navi Pillay said in Geneva: “Those with influence on the armed groups responsible for much of the violence in eastern Ukraine [must] do their utmost to rein in these men who seem bent on tearing the country apart.”

The UN’s report details growing lawlessness in eastern and southern Ukraine:

  • Peaceful demonstrations, primarily by supporters of Ukraine’s unity, deteriorate into violence
  • Protesters are attacked and beaten
  • Local police do nothing to prevent the violence and sometimes openly co-operate with the attackers

UN monitors have also documented cases of targeted killings, torture and abduction, primarily carried out by anti-government forces in eastern Ukraine.

The report highlights threats to journalists and international observers, and abductions or attacks on some.

In its response, Russia’s foreign ministry said the report lacked any semblance of objectivity, and accused its authors of following “political orders” to whitewash Ukraine’s new, pro-Western leaders.

The report, it said in a statement in Russian, ignored “the crudest violations of human rights by the self-proclaimed Kiev authorities”.

Separatists in Donetsk announced on Thursday they were setting up their own parliament and were planning to open the border with Russia shortly.

Steelworkers in the flash-point port of Mariupol have begun citizen patrols after talks between officials from their company Metinvest, which is owned by oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, and local police and community leaders.

Ukraine troops have retaken Mariupol city hall from pro-Russia separatists, reports say.

The rebels, who had seized the building last week, reportedly left early on Wednesday. The reason is not clear.

Pro-Russia separatists have captured official buildings in dozens of towns in eastern Ukraine in recent weeks.

Ukraine troops have retaken Mariupol city hall from pro-Russia separatists

Ukraine troops have retaken Mariupol city hall from pro-Russia separatists

The government has accused Russia of helping the rebels and sent troops to restore Kiev’s authority.

Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted a pro-Moscow militiaman in Mariupol as saying government forces had taken over the city hall.

“No shots were heard,” he said.

“All the militia members were removed from the building.”

He added that government forces had started to clear the barricade on the central square with a bulldozer.

There were also reports of clashes between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russia militants in Sloviansk, a rebel stronghold, early on Wednesday.

The Ukrainian government has rejected the pro-Russian activists’ demands for greater autonomy for eastern regions, fearing they could lead to the break-up of the country or more regions being annexed.

Kiev has called a presidential election on May 25, and said it was ready to back new international talks in Geneva, as long as Moscow supported the poll.

On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov ruled out holding another round of international talks unless pro-Russian opposition groups were involved.

The separatists in Donetsk have proclaimed a “People’s Republic” and are preparing to hold an independence referendum on Sunday.

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Ukraine’s government announces it has regained control of the city hall in the eastern port of Mariupol from pro-Russian separatists.

Several people are said to have been hurt during the overnight operation in the city, where three pro-Russian protesters were recently shot dead.

Administrative buildings have been taken over by separatists in at least a dozen towns in eastern Ukraine.

Talks are reportedly taking place in Mariupol between the two sides.

In another development, the funeral is taking place of a pro-Ukrainian politician, Volodymyr Rybak, who was abducted and killed in the Donetsk region.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama has accused Russia of flouting a deal on Ukraine reached in Geneva last week, under which illegal armed groups, including those who have seized public buildings, would return home.

Barack Obama told a news conference in Japan that Moscow had failed to halt actions by militants in the region and warned that the US had further sanctions against Russia “teed up”.

Ukraine’s government announces it has regained control of the city hall in the eastern port of Mariupol from pro-Russian separatists

Ukraine’s government announces it has regained control of the city hall in the eastern port of Mariupol from pro-Russian separatists

A contingent of US troops has begun landing in Poland for military exercises amid concerns among NATO’s eastern members about Russian intentions.

Moscow has said it will respond to any attack on its interests in Ukraine.

Unrest began in Ukraine last November over whether the country should look towards Moscow or the West.

Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov announced on Thursday that the city hall in Mariupol, a port on the Sea of Azov in the Donetsk region, had been “liberated” overnight without any casualties.

“Civic activists” played a major part in the operation, he said.

According to the local news website 0629, a group of about 30 unidentified men in their twenties armed with baseball bats stormed the mayor’s office between 03:00 and 04:00 on Thursday.

The protesters called the police who reportedly came out and calmed down the opposing sides.

Negotiations are under way at the scene between the separatists, the local pro-Ukrainian authorities and the police, the site says.

While the interior minister said nobody had been hurt in the operation, 0629 reported that five men were injured, though not seriously.

Arsen Avakov also said that Ukrainian troops in Artemivsk, another town in the Donetsk region, had fended off an attempt by dozens of pro-Russian militants to seize weapons from a military unit. One soldier was wounded, he said.

Unverified footage of military helicopters, said to be flying over Artemivsk, was posted by a blogger on YouTube.

A local journalist, Anna Bokovaya, told Russian TV that about 50 people had taken part in the attack on the military unit, which lasted 45 minutes.

The militants began the attack after the soldiers inside rejected a demand to surrender, she said. The town was calm again on Thursday morning, she added.

Three pro-Russian protesters were killed when Ukrainian security forces fought off a raid on a base in Mariupol on April 17.

Three people were killed in an overnight raid on a base in Mariupol, eastern Ukraine, the country’s interior minister says.

The three pro-Russian separatists were killed in a clash with Ukrainian forces in Mariupol, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on Facebook.

The Geneva meeting is the first such gathering since the crisis escalated.

The West says Russia is aiding the pro-Russian activists occupying buildings.

In a live TV phone-in on Thursday Russia’s President Vladimir Putin warned Kiev of “the abyss they’re heading into” in eastern Ukraine and urged dialogue.

Vladimir Putin said the Kiev government, which had “seized power”, had only spoken to its own appointees in the region, but “not to the people whom locals trust”.

Tensions escalated last month when Russia annexed Crimea, causing international outrage. Unrest later spread to Donetsk region, another mainly Russian-speaking area. It is Europe’s worst crisis since the Cold War.

Vladimir Putin is now taking questions from residents of Sevastopol, base of the Russian fleet in Crimea, the first place to feature in his phone-in. It is the first time Crimea has been included in Vladimir Putin’s annual phone-in.

Overnight about 300 pro-Russian separatists attacked a military unit in Mariupol near the Azov Sea, throwing petrol bombs. Troops opened fire, killing three, Arsen Avakov said.

The operation is continuing – Ukraine has sent in reinforcements including helicopters. There was no independent confirmation of his statement.

Three people were killed in an overnight raid on a base in Mariupol

Three people were killed in an overnight raid on a base in Mariupol

According to Arsen Avakov, 13 of the attackers were wounded and so far 63 have been detained. He said none of the interior ministry troops had been killed.

It is the heaviest casualty toll in any single incident so far in eastern Ukraine.

Mariupol is in the far south of Donetsk region, where separatists have seized dozens of official buildings.

Ukrainian SBU special forces have gone to the aid of the interior ministry troops in Mariupol and armored vehicles have gone into the city from places nearby, Ukraine’s Unian news agency reports.

Retreating separatists reportedly wounded two passers-by, set a minibus ablaze and also set fire to a building next to the military garrison.

“Through joint efforts by the armed police and national guard the attacking gang was dispersed after a short battle, most of them were cornered and disarmed,” Arsen Avakov said.

“Because it was such an aggressive attack on a military unit – an interior ministry group – we decided to reinforce them with Omega special forces. Helicopters have been deployed.”

According to a report on Russia’s state-run Vesti TV news, unarmed local protesters tried to talk to the Ukrainian troops but were met with gunfire. Quoting unnamed Mariupol residents, the TV channel said shots were also fired at first-aid paramedics.

Some locals say Ukrainian Right Sector ultra-nationalists have joined Kiev’s forces in Mariupol, while separatists have erected street barricades, the TV reports.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea has fuelled concern that other parts of eastern Ukraine could also break away from Kiev’s control and join Russia.

In his TV broadcast, President Vladimir Putin said Russia had “never planned to annex Crimea or take military action there, but threats to Russian speakers there were real”.

He again denied allegations of Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine, calling them “nonsense”.

Earlier, President Barack Obama warned Russia against support for further action by armed pro-Russian groups.

“What I have said consistently is that each time Russia takes these kinds of steps that are designed to destabilize Ukraine and violate their sovereignty, that there are going to be consequences,” he said.

Reports say that the White House is considering a package of non-lethal aid for the Ukrainian military. This may include clothing and medical supplies.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s military operation against separatists has hit obstacles.

Called an “anti-terrorist” operation by the Kiev government, it started on Tuesday and is designed to dislodge pro-Russia gunmen from local authority buildings in a swathe of cities and towns in eastern Ukraine.

Pro-Russian activists want referendums on greater autonomy for the south-east or the right to join the Russian Federation.

But in several districts, Ukrainian troops met vehement opposition on Wednesday from pro-Russia militants.

In the city of Kramatorsk, six military vehicles were commandeered by gunmen, who disarmed the Ukrainian soldiers and sent some of them home on buses.

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