Pro-Russian separatists vow to take three new Ukrainian towns

The self-proclaimed head of separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine, Alexander Zaharchenko, has vowed to retake three towns currently controlled by the Kiev government including the stronghold city of Slavyansk which saw fighting on the streets between rebels and Ukrainian defence forces last spring.

Slavyansk is an industrial city in the Donetsk region, north of the area's rebel-held capital and it was the scene of heavy fighting during the start of Ukraine's campaign against pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk last year. After three waves of clashes between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces, the Ukrainian government regained control of the city and nearby territories.

Zaharchenko, who considers himself head-of-state of the unrecognized Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) consisting of rebel-held territory in Ukraine, told Russian agency Interfax that he intends to take the city and two other towns north of Donetsk.

"Slavyansk, Konstantinovka, Krasnoarmeysk - these are all cities that belong to the DNR," Zaharchenko said. "If the possibility arises that we can free these territories using political means, we are going to make use of it."

"As soon as we understand that this is not possible, we will take the decision to liberate these territories [ourselves]," Zaharchenko added.

The Ukrainian government does not recognize the Russian fighters in Donetsk and Luhansk as a legitimate state and nor does the UN. Russian or Ukrainian diplomatic envoys have served as a mediators between the Ukrainian government and rebel representatives even in peace talks, while Kiev has requested that the EU recognize DNR as a terrorist organisation.

Zaharchenko has previously threatened to take Slavyansk in October, as well as the key port city of Mariupol in a similar public statement, saying that he would have preferred that the towns were handed to his men in a "peaceful way". He vowed to take all territories within the Donetsk region, and heavy fighting has subsequently erupted several times in the direction of key targets with limited success.

Despite a ceasefire being in place between the rebels and Kiev, pro-Russian separatists have continued to push strongly towards Mariupol, although Ukraine's defence forces have managed to retain control.

Heavy military build up on the Russian-Ukrainian border has been reported over the last few days, as fears continue to grow of a new violent breakout on a scale similar to the fighting prior to February's ceasefire.

"Like most observers, I believe that there will be a new Kremlin-directed offensive," former US ambassador to Ukraine said last month, noting that it was during "quiet periods" that Russia had managed to redeploy troops and kit within Ukraine on previous occasions.