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Pro-Russia Fighters Advance West Into Ukraine, as Others Flee for Kiev

Novoazovsk, a small town in eastern Ukraine, was overtaken by pro-Russia rebels on Thursday. After a 24-hour ban on journalists ended, VICE News went in.

by Harriet Salem
Aug 29 2014, 11:00pm

Photo by Harriet Salem

At the entrance to Novoazovsk, a small town in eastern Ukraine just nine miles from the Russian border, two Soviet-era B72 tanks flank the road. Men dressed in military fatigues and clad in balaclavas sat triumphantly atop the monstrous vehicles giving the peace sign and waving their machine guns as cars passed by. Above them the pro-Russia rebels' flag of war — blood red emblazoned with a blue Saint Andrew's cross — fluttered in the breeze.

At least five more tank and anti-aircraft gun positions were visible along the tree-lined boulevard of houses running through the town

"No one was here when we entered, we just rolled right in," said Igor, a 54-year-old miner-turned-militia-fighter posing next to a tank he has affectionately nicknamed Taniusha after his wife, Tatyana.

Novoazovsk lies just 27 miles east of the strategically important port city of Mariupol. On Thursday, after two days of shelling and grad rocket fire forced the retreat of Ukrainian forces, it became the new pro-Russia frontline as rebel fighters that began seizing large swathes of land in Ukraine's east back in mid-April moved into town.

Today, dozens of armed rebels strolled around, checking vehicle license plates and the personal documents of drivers passing through the town which sits along an artery route stretching down to Russian-annexed Crimea

Some locals brought the fighters food and offered their support. "It's great we're so happy the DNR [Donetsk People's Republic] is here, we just hope that they stay," gushed Svetlana, a heavily made-up 45-year-old local, as she visited the militia manning a tank position near the town's bus stop.

Others, however, were more reticent about the new arrivals. "We are non-political, our job is just to make sure the town functions," Svetlana Kalinichenko, the petite advisor to the town's mayor, anxiously told VICE News. "But the opinion of the local population is divided, everyone has their own view, some are for, some are against." She added that at least 20 percent of the residents fled in terror as soon the shelling started, mainly those with children.

Rebel fighter poses next to a T-72 tank in Novasovsk that he has affectionately nicknamed Taniusha after his wife, Tatyana. Ukraine claim the rebels have received the tanks from Russia, but the militia say they were captured during clashes with government forces. Photo by Harriet Salem/VICE News. 

Most the rebel fighters that VICE News spoke to in Novoazovsk were Donbas locals, many miners, from the nearby Ukrainian towns of Krasnodon, Alchevsk, Sloviansk, and Kramatorsk.

But Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine's president, says that the pro-Russia forces pushing the new southeast front are now being supported by at least 1,000 professional soldiers sent by Moscow in what is tantamount to a military invasion. "Russian forces have actually entered Ukraine," he said on Thursday.

In Novoazovsk, which was sealed to journalists for 24 hours after its takeover, a rebel commander, who goes by the nom-de-guerre of Swat, ridiculed the accusations. "There are no Russian soldiers here, and no Russian technicians," the 45-year-old from Odessa told VICE News as he relaxed in the sun, donning a bling gold orthodox cross neck chain and mirrored sunglasses.

But the army-issue radio communications, Russian military vehicles without license plates, and freshly painted armored personnel carriers on display here hinted at outside support, as did a handful of silent, professional-looking gunmen who kept to the background wearing sunglasses.

And, out of earshot of the militia, some of the locals whispered to VICE News that the tanks had come into town from Russia, saying that they "couldn't have come any other way."

Kiev has long accused Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, of fueling the battle in the country's east by allowing supplies of weapons and men to flow to the rebel fighters. On Thursday, however, as the pro-Russia forces pushed forward their front, the allegations reached a fever pitch when NATO produced satellite images showing military movement on Ukraine's frontier with Russia, and Western officials scrambled to condemn the Kremlin's leader.

"There is no doubt that this is not a home-grown, indigenous uprising in eastern Ukraine. The separatists are backed, trained, armed, financed by Russia. Throughout this process we've seen deep Russian involvement in everything that they've done," said US President Barack Obama on Thursday. The incursion would bring "more costs and consequences to Russia," he added in a threat of more financial sanctions on the errant country.

The Ukrainian flag is still on display in the local administration building in Novoazovsk which was overtaken by pro-Russia rebels on Thursday. Photo by Harriet Salem/VICE News.

The offensive has also prompted fresh criticism from Europe, with Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel also warning that the European Union would be discussing the possibility of imposing new economic penalties on Russia at summit meeting in Brussels on Saturday.

Moscow has officially denied the allegations of interference in the conflict, but Alexander Zakharchenko, separatist leader and self-appointed Prime Minister of the DNR, has publically offered his "thanks" to Russia for its support. And today Putin, who previously denied holding any sway over the uprising, managed to negotiate a humanitarian corridor for Ukrainian troops besieged by rebel forces in the country's east.

"In a sign of respect to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, the president of the country… we are ready to grant humanitarian corridors to the Ukrainian divisions surrounded in these pockets," Zakharchenko said.

Meanwhile, in the face of the mounting threat in its east, Ukraine today pushed to tighten its ties further with the West. Ukraine's Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, announced the introduction of a bill in Parliament to cancel Ukraine's status as a non-aligned country and to "restore its aspirations to become a NATO member."

Posting on Facebook, the prime minister said the move, "reaffirms the main political goal of Ukraine — to become a member of the European Union."

In Mariupol, Ukrainian troops digging into trenches, with tanks, and other military equipment at the eastern edge of the city could only say they "hoped" they would be able to hold the city with the new reinforcements sent by Kiev. "We're ready to fight the Russians when they come," one Ukrainian fighter from the volunteer Azov Battalion told VICE News, a blue and yellow ribbon tied around his wrist.

Not all were convinced, however. As sun set, a tailback formed at the Ukrainian checkpoint at the west of the city as soldiers were unable to check vehicles fast enough to meet the demand to leave. Mariupol train station was also overloaded with long lines forming at the ticket counter and the platform was crowded with people waiting to board the fully-booked 5pm departure to Kiev, carrying bedding, suitcases, and family pets.

"It's becoming more dangerous so we're leaving, I know lots of people who are," 26-year-old Vladimir told VICE News as he and his family, who fled the fighting in Donetsk only three weeks ago, waited to get on the train. "We just hope that Kiev stays safe."

Watch all of VICE News' dispatches, Russian Roulette here.

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem