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Originally published Tuesday, July 8, 2014 at 10:22 PM

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Ukrainian rebels cling to hope in strongholds

Rebel fighters in eastern Ukraine may be on the ropes, but they are not melting away.


The New York Times

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DONETSK, Ukraine — They are blocking roads and erecting barricades. They are riding around town in columns of cars. They are lounging at bus stops and have taken up residence in university dormitories.

Rebel fighters in eastern Ukraine may be on the ropes, but they are not melting away, at least not here in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine’s regional capital. Over the weekend, hundreds of them poured into this city after the Ukrainian military forced them out of Slovyansk, a stronghold north of here. Now they are digging in, preparing for a final showdown with the Ukrainian military that they say is coming soon.

Whether it does is an open question. Moscow, whose support the rebels say they cannot live without, has called for a negotiated truce and seems to be unwilling to come to their aid, at least openly. But negotiations have faltered. Ukraine recently called off a cease-fire, worrying that it was playing into the rebels’ hands.

On Tuesday, hopes for talks seemed to flicker again. On a surprise visit to Slovyansk, Ukraine’s president, Petro O. Poroshenko, emphasized that he was prepared to negotiate with those ready “to lay down their arms” and opt for “a future amnesty.”

Negotiations should be “resumed with the authentic owners” of this part of Ukraine, such as steelmakers and miners, Poroshenko said in a statement. Over weeks of on-again-off-again negotiations, Poroshenko has refused to deal directly with the leaders of the armed separatist rebellion.

It was far from clear that such an offer would suit any of the rebels, who may be on the defensive, but are far from defeated. In the neighboring city of Luhansk, which, like Donetsk, was also occupied this spring, a rebel leader said his forces had actually pushed back government troops in recent days, according to the Russian news agency Interfax.

On Tuesday, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, reiterated the Kremlin’s demand for a cease-fire in the Ukrainian conflict, and said Poroshenko was being counterproductive by demanding that insurgents surrender before engaging in any peace talks.

The approach “discourages us and kills any opportunity for reconciliation,” he said.

The government in Kiev also warned that it was prepared to take the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk by force. “There is a plan,” Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, said at a briefing in Kiev.

“I am not disclosing details,” he added. “It should be a nasty unpleasant surprise for the terrorists.”

Moscow’s role remains a mystery. But rebels seem to be growing increasingly disenchanted with what they call meager support. In a video that surfaced this week, a separatist was shown yelling at Sergei Kurginyan, a Kremlin-connected political operative who was in Donetsk on Monday. The separatist, with gray hair and a camouflage jacket, said he held the Russian government responsible for the rebels’ retreat from Slovyansk.

“Look, here’s your help,” he said, grabbing a rifle. “These rusty automatic weapons. Thank you for them. But this is too little.”

In Donetsk, at least for now, the rebels were confident enough to saunter around the city as if they owned it. With a population of 1 million, the city is outwardly affluent, with an Infiniti car dealership, a fancy sports stadium and several luxury hotels. Any bombing would seem likely to inflict severe civilian casualties as well as property damage, and the rebels may be counting on the government trying to avoid that.

In the past week, they have stolen gasoline, robbed a bank and taken over a surgery unit at the Kalinin Hospital, according to local news reports and the accounts of witnesses. They have also taken up residence in the dormitory of Donetsk’s main university.

“There are real beds and sheets,” said a 22-year-old fighter excitedly, who had come from fighting in Slovyansk. He said he had been sleeping outside and in buildings for weeks. He was standing in the rain with his mother, whom he had not seen in two months.

The city seemed as if it was waiting for something. Streets were empty. Many stores were closed. And rebels were building barricades on some of the smaller outer roads. A giant pile of gravel had been dumped across one access road in the Petrovsky neighborhood in the southwest of the city, and workers were moving large concrete barricades into place nearby.The quiet was broken around 1 p.m., when a fighter jet fired at an abandoned coal mine that had served as a makeshift base for some of the rebels. Local news agencies quoted Ukrainian forces as saying that fighter jets had not been flying Tuesday. But the sound was clear, prompting dozens of pedestrians to look skyward. No one was hurt, but residents were shaken.

“I never thought I’d see such a thing in Donetsk,” said one young man, Alexander, 17, who was standing with his mother at a bus stop near the explosion. He said that his bus, No. 42, arrived with several broken windows just minutes later, and that people at the bus stop were panicking, with “tears and hysterics.”

He had been trying to persuade his parents to let him join the rebels, he said, and now he would redouble his efforts.

“If everyone here sits around with their hands crossed, who will protect our land?” he said.



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