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Ukraine forces claim victory in eastern rebel stronghold

DONETSK, Ukraine -- Government troops have taken a rebel stronghold in east Ukraine, the country's president and a spokesman for the rebels said Saturday.

President Petro Poroshenko said in a statement that government troops took Slovyansk, a city of about 100,000 that has been a center of the fighting between Kiev's troops and the pro-Russian insurgents, after a night of fighting. It was a rare significant success for Kiev's forces in their struggle to quell the rebellion.

Poroshenko commanded the armed forces to raise the Ukrainian flag over Slovyansk, which has been under control of the rebels since early April when they seized the city's administrative and police buildings.

Andrei Purgin of the separatist Donetsk People's Republic told The Associated Press that rebels were evacuating, but claimed the army's campaign had left the city “in ruins.”

However, Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for the National Security and Defense Council, said mopping-up operations were continuing.

“Slovyansk is under siege. Now an operation is going on to neutralize small groups hiding in buildings where peaceful citizens are living,” Lysenko told journalists.

Alexei, a driver and local Slovyansk resident who would not give his last name for fear of reprisal, told the AP by phone that he heard bombing throughout the night. When the bombing stopped in the early morning, he left his house and saw that all the rebel checkpoints were abandoned. He said there was some damage to buildings in the center of the city, but said much of the rest of the city had been left untouched.

A rebel commander who would only give his nom de guerre as Pinochet told the AP that rebels had relocated to the nearby town of Kramatorsk, 20 kilometers south of Slovyansk. But outside Kramatorsk, an AP reporter saw an abandoned checkpoint and several hundred rebels, armed and in uniform, driving in minibuses in the direction of Donetsk.

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