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Gunmen leave civilians to defend rebel stronghold in Ukraine

Source: Reuters - Tue, 6 May 2014 18:26 GMT
Author: Reuters
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By Maria Tsvetkova

SLAVIANSK, Ukraine, May 6 (Reuters) - Most mornings Alexandra, a painter and decorator in her late 20s, leaves her 10-year-old daughter at home, puts a starting pistol in her belt and walks to barricades in her hometown Slaviansk.

She is one of several volunteers at checkpoints inside the rebel stronghold town in eastern Ukraine replacing gunmen in camouflage who have melted into the background since Kiev stepped up what it describes as an anti-terrorist operation.

The self-declared separatist mayor, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, says they are training or resting, but other rebels say it is a strategic move to deter attempts by Ukrainian troops to retake the town by putting civilians in their way.

"Gunmen are standing at the most important checkpoints only," said pro-Russian activist Filipp.

"But if they enter the town, they still will be hit from every window and every backyard. If someone is able to do anything bad to them, they will."

On Friday, Ukrainian troops in armoured personnel carriers, supported by helicopters, surrounded Slaviansk, the rebels' most heavily fortified redoubt, taking control of several routes out of the town as part of its "anti-terrorist operation".

Kiev said its troops had taken all rebel-held checkpoints surrounding the town, trapping the separatists inside and cutting their supply lines.

But Ponomaryov told Reuters his men had simply left the checkpoints. The rebels have launched a fierce attack against the Ukrainian troops in recent days, shooting down three helicopters. At least 10 people have been killed.

Kiev has accused the rebels of using civilians as human shields, complicating the army's efforts to restore control to swathes of Ukraine's industrial east where the rebels have seized buildings and now run local administrations.

GUNMEN ARE GONE

Before the fighting in Slaviansk, all checkpoints were run by at least one well-armed man. Now, the number of barricades has doubled and they are mostly manned by largely unarmed civilians.

On Friday, Reuters encountered a new barricade of felled trees a few hundred metres away from the town centre manned by two teenagers who welcomed cars with gunshots.

They made passengers leave their cars with their hands up to search them, but then apologised for the overreaction.

At a checkpoint near city hall Alexandra says she has no military experience.

"It is only a starting pistol," she says.

"If you shoot someone in the face, you can kill them, but it's not a machine gun. They won't give me a machine gun. I'm not a military person."

Pro-Russian rebel Sergei agrees, saying guns are given only to those who know how to use them. "If you come and you can (fire a gun), you get it," he says. "If you served in the army."

The calm that has descended on Slaviansk belies the town's combat readiness.

When Ukrainian troops approach pro-Russian checkpoints around Slaviansk they usually find them abandoned and the tyres that form the barriers on fire - a warning to people inside the town that soldiers are coming.

When fighting starts, people are called to the main square by an air raid siren and church bells. Some separatists melt into the crowds, taking off their uniforms.

And at the barricades, the most frequent answer as to why the gunmen have gone is: "We don't have guns. We are peaceful people". (Editing by Elizabeth Piper and Will Waterman)

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