Ukraine retakes port city of Mariupol and part of border

Kiev, Ukraine - Government troops ousted pro-Russian separatists and raised the national flag over a port city in the east and regained control over a stretch of the border with Russia, Ukrainian officials announced Friday.

The pre-dawn attack on separatist strongholds in the city of Mariupol, the second-largest city in the Donetsk region, was over in less than six hours, according to the interior minister, Arsen Avakov. At least five separatists were reported killed and four Ukrainian soldiers were wounded.

Mariupol is considered strategically important because it is situated on major roads and because steel is exported through its port. Separatists have infiltrated Mariupol several times in the conflict, and full Ukrainian control may prove to be only temporary.

But in a sign that Ukrainians expect to stay in charge, President Petro Poroshenko ordered Serhiy Taruta, the Donetsk governor who has been ruling from Kiev in recent weeks, to relocate immediately to Mariupol.

After a series of setbacks, the battlefield victory underscores a growing confidence among Ukrainian officials that the tide may have turned in the conflict that has raged since April.

Poroshenko has called on the separatists to lay down their arms and said he will negotiate with anyone who doesn't have the blood of innocents on his hands.

On Wednesday, three seemingly old and decommissioned tanks rumbled through the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, though their exact origin is murky. Ukrainian officials said they came across the border from Russia, but Russia denied that they were ever on Russian territory. Whatever their provenance, rebel leader Denis Pushilin, who escaped an apparent assassination attempt Thursday, told Russian state television Friday that the tanks are in the hands of the Donetsk People's Republic.

He deflected questions about how they obtained them.

Some Ukrainian officials are looking for ways to fortify border security once the conflict is under control. Igor Kolomoisky, a billionaire who was appointed governor of the region around Dnipropetrovsk, has urged Poroshenko to begin building an impermeable fence along the border in the regions of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv.

He compared it to the Mannerheim Line, which Finland erected along its border with the Soviet Union in the 1920s as a bulwark against the Communists who came to power in the Bolshevik Revolution. He also noted that Israel has built a wall separating it from Palestinians in the West Bank.

Kolomoisky apparently has given the idea of a Ukrainian wall some thought. He proposed an electrified fence be constructed of high-strength steel topped by barbed wire and with moats on either side to deter civilians and animals. He estimated that the fence would cost the cash-strapped state at least $70 million, or perhaps double that.

But first, Ukraine must regain control of the breakaway regions.

Government accounts of Friday's battle to retake Mariupol, if accurate, would suggest that not all the insurgents are ferociously committed to their cause.

Gerashchenko told reporters that about 30 separatist fighters were detained. Many were hiding in buildings and basements, he said, and were warned that if they didn't surrender, troops would hurl in hand grenades.

He said the captured fighters provided details about the locations of mines and sniper lookouts. Security forces were able to defuse two bombs in one building before they exploded, he said.

By midmorning, yellow and blue Ukrainian flags once again were flying from the city administration building and the city council building.

"The city returns to its normal life," Gerashchenko said.

bc-ukraine

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