No surrender: Ukraine rebels confident despite losses

Nicolas Gaudichet
A pro-Russian gunman holds a piece of shrapnel from a rocket after shelling in downtown Donetsk on August 22, 2014
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A pro-Russian gunman holds a piece of shrapnel from a rocket after shelling in downtown Donetsk on August 22, 2014 (AFP Photo/Dimitar Dilkoff)

Donetsk (Ukraine) (AFP) - Ukrainian forces may be pummelling them daily and key leaders might have just quit but defiant pro-Russian rebels say any talk of them being on the back foot is just crude propaganda from Kiev.

Manning a barricade on the eastern edges of the besieged rebel bastion Donetsk insurgent fighter Grozny is categorical that the separatist forces will ultimately prevail.

"Victory, there will be only victory," says the affable rebel, wearing a hairband, and a dagger in his belt.

Despite ferocious mortar fire raining down on the area around him for days, Grozny -- who says he was born in east Ukraine but grew up in Russia's Chechnya -- claims it's the Ukrainian army that is on the run.

They are suffering "major losses and permanently fleeing," he says, adding that government soldiers were "surrendering by the dozen".

Fierce fighting still rages daily around Donetsk, casting doubt over government assertions that they have completely encircled insurgents in the city.

The military in Kiev claims to have wrested back control of a string of key towns nearby in recent days, including the strategic railway hub of Yasynuvata.

But Pyotr Savchenko, an officer of the volunteer rebel Vostok battalion joked that the Ukrainian soldiers "only spent three hours in Yasynuvata".

Rebels have pledged to fight to the death but Savchenko refused to say how many now remain in Donetsk.

- Rats from sinking ship? -

That question has become even more pressing for the rebels after the abrupt departures of two of their top leaders in recent weeks caused speculation that the rebellion was unravelling.

Russian citizens Igor Strelkov, the separatist's military chief, and Alexander Borodai, their prime minister, unexpectedly quit their posts in favour of rebels from the region.

"I think they left because they were losing," said Irene Chalupa, an expert on Ukraine at the Washington-based Atlantic Council.

"Naming locals to lead the separatists is an effort to try to portray it as a local, home grown movement, rather than what it really is -- one exported by and from Russia."

But for the fighters left behind in the dwindling rebel territories all claims that they are losing are simply part of Kiev's psychological warfare campaign.

No matter who is in charge "what matters is the common goal," says Savchenko.

And in a grim show of defiance the separatist leadership has even threatened to hold a parade of captured Ukrainian soldiers in Donetsk Sunday to parody Independence Day celebrations due in Kiev that day.

Already two destroyed Ukrainian armoured vehicles have been parked up on display at the foot of the Lenin statue in the centre of the city.

"Our prisoners say they are surprised by the quality of our equipment," says one rebel fighter Andrei, a construction worker.

And outside the rebel headquarters in the occupied former offices of the regional administration a steady stream of young men can still be found queueing at a kiosk to sign up to fight.

"We need to defend the homeland," eager recruit Vyacheslav, 23, says.